by Judith Curry
Can we have a good, even great, anthropocene?
I’ve been planning a post on the Breakthrough Institute’s An Ecomodernist Manifesto, Their main point is that “knowledge and technology, applied with wisdom, might allow for a good, or even great, Anthropocene.” The main principle is to work towards decoupling humankind’s material needs from nature.
The Manifesto has been widely discussed and critiqued, see some responses [here]. The Breakthrough Institute held their annual Breakthrough Dialogue last month on The Good Anthropocene. I was invited to attend, but unfortunately the timing conflicted with my UK trip. Relevant essays are in the current issue of Breakthrough Journal.
For some context, I’ve written a previous post Pondering the Anthropocene. A recent post by Andy Revkin (who attended last month’s Breakthrough Dialogue) Varied views: dark, light and in between of Earth’s anthropocene age provides a convenient spring board for my post. Revkin’s post discusses a panel at the Breakthrough Dialogue with:
The focus of my post is Revkin’s summary of the perspective of Christian Schwägerl, a Berlin-based science journalist and author of “The Anthropocene: The Human Era and How It Shapes Our Planet.” Excerpts:
Apocalyptic and misanthropic environmental narratives, as Clive Hamilton represents them, have had an important role in stirring up the public. But they have also contributed to widespread resignation and cynicism. So far, they have fallen short of mobilizing enough people to bring about real political change. Constant warnings about an imminent ecological doomsday might turn out to be counterproductive as they encourage short-term thinking and an eleventh-hour panic. If I knew that the world would end tomorrow, would I really plant an apple tree? I, for one, would prefer to eat apple cake.
Defining the Anthropocene as “not good” discourages the development of concrete and attractive alternatives to the rampant destruction caused by the currently dominant economic ideology which is blind to the multi-dimensional values of nature.
Strangely, doomsday environmentalism and destructive capitalism have a couple of things in common: for one, a certain future-blindness. Capitalism devalues all future life with its emphasis on quarterly earnings. Likewise, certain environmentalists don’t think beyond a self-chosen threshold of predicted global self-destruction — be it a year, say, 2050 or a number like 2 (degrees Celsius of warming). Secondly, what current capitalism and doomsday environmentalists share is a tendency to frame nature and resources as scarce, when they aren’t. This raises prices for commodities and helps draw attention to scary eco-headlines, but it stops us from developing a really intimate relationship with the circular, networked and plentiful nature of living nature.
Framing nature as scarce and as doomed due to the existence of humans makes it hard for hundreds of millions of people in the younger generation to connect with the living world in a healthy and positive way and to experience its abundance and richness.
Ultimately what is needed are not more scenarios of Anthropocene Apocalypse but more ideas of how a “good Anthropocene” might emerge with the help of new societal values, new economic rules, landmark political decisions, individual behavior changes and, yes, new technologies.
But does this mean that the “Ecomodernist Manifesto” is a particularly convincing articulation of a good Anthropocene? Not at all. The Breakthrough Institute essay is full of outdated ideas that have actually contributed to the very problems we are faced with today. The manifesto’s central idea of “conscious decoupling” from nature by technological solutions independent from surrounding ecosystems is what has brought us over-industrialized agriculture with zero regard for the planet and the people around it. What is needed in the Anthropocene, in my view, is the opposite: “conscious coupling” – a re-integration of human civilization into the fabric of life.
True, the idea of “conscious decoupling” is deeply rooted in the environmental movement, as Michael Shellenberger from the Breakthrough Institute claims. As early as the 1970s, “deep ecologist” Paul Shephard, developed the misanthropic notion that the whole of humanity should be ghettoized in cities, giving the rest of the planet over to a nature devoid of humans. Is this the ultimate goal of the Ecomodernist manifesto?
Another flaw in the manifesto is the way it mischaracterizes renewable energies and presses for building new nuclear power plants. While disguising itself as ecological, the manifesto tries to hijack the Anthropocene idea for the benefit of very centralized power structures like big ag and the nuclear industry. Finally, ending the manifesto with the vision of a “great” Anthropocene really is making nonsense of this precious idea. What is needed is less, not more hubris and boastfulness in the face of daunting problems.*
Taken together, the manifesto is “modernist” only in the sense of a 20th century modernism that saw the American Way of Life as the ultimate solution to everything. This type of modernity died conceptually some time ago but keeps producing zombie landscapes and zombie economic practices around the planet.
There’s a desperate need for eco-postmodernist strategies that reconnect our ways of life with Earth and help to turn consumerist materialism into what political scientist Jane Bennett has called “vital materialism” or what Pope Francis has described as an intimate connection with all beings alive in his recent encyclical “Laudato Si”. Moving beyond anthropocentrism is a central challenge. An anthropocentric Anthropocene would be short, ugly and, in the words of E.O. Wilson, lonely.
In my book and in a talk I gave at the Royal Institution in London in March this year, I explore a “good Anthropocene” based on conscious coupling, a renewable economy, bioadaptive technologies, decentralized power systems and a biocultural transformation.
There shouldn’t be only one “good Anthropocene”, however. The idea of a world with a homogenous eco-friendly lifestyle, a green version of Silicon Valley’s totalitarian Singularity ideology, is also a bit scary. What we need are millions of diverse and competing attempts to work towards good Anthropocene practices – and constant reminders that, at the moment, what we are heading for – because of a lack of deep economic, political, societal and technological changes – indeed appears to be some form of “dark Anthropocene.”
An interesting critique of ecomodernism (cited by Revkin) is also provided by Dave Ropeik in this article: A good, even great anthropocene? Not if it depends on wisdom overcoming instinct.
I found the Ecomodernism Manifesto to be a refreshing antidote to the eco-alarmist perspective that wants to somehow get rid of 6 billion people, capitalism, etc. And I also think that it is important to have a wide ranging discussion of these broad issues.
That said, my own perspective is closer to Schwägerl’s. I am concerned by the over centralized approach promoted by ecomodernism. I agree with Shwagerl that we need millions of diverse and competing attempts to work towards good Anthropocene practices. Centralized approaches don’t work very well, viz. the UNFCCC treaties. They don’t work because it is difficult to get international or even national agreement, and because there are no silver bullet solutions to wicked problems of global energy, food, water, environment, population (silver buckshot approach is preferred).
And the idea of ‘conscious coupling’ with nature speaks to me more so than the ideal of ‘conscious decoupling’ from nature – this is the one part of Pope Francis’ Laudato Si that I resonated with.
It seems to me that the workable/desired approaches will vary with geography/climate, natural resources, population, human development index and culture. Much of the world lives a subsistence lifestyle that depends on rainfed agriculture. In the rapidly developing world, there is a migration to cities, where economic opportunities abound. However in the most developed parts of the world, there is a thread of yearning to connect more closely with nature, through locally sourced organic/pastured food. Further, solar power is enabling people to live off the grid. My niece Kelly, who recently graduated from college, is managing an organic goat farm and living off the grid (solar, well water), apart from when she leaves the farm.
My personal desire is to leave the city and live a life that is more connected to nature. Whether or not this is ‘rational’ in context of planetary health, I don’t know.