Tag Archives: Erle Ellis

The Anthropocene: spread of an idea

The Anthropocene, the idea that the entire planet has become a social-ecological system, is now being discussed in the mass media.  Three recent sightings…

1) The Economist has a feature story A man-made world: Science is recognising humans as a geological force to be reckoned with.  The author writes:

To think of deliberately interfering in the Earth system will undoubtedly be alarming to some. But so will an Anthropocene deprived of such deliberation. A way to try and split the difference has been propounded by a group of Earth-system scientists inspired by (and including) Dr Crutzen under the banner of “planetary boundaries”. The planetary-boundaries group, which published a sort of manifesto in 2009, argues for increased restraint and, where necessary, direct intervention aimed at bringing all sorts of things in the Earth system, from the alkalinity of the oceans to the rate of phosphate run-off from the land, close to the conditions pertaining in the Holocene. Carbon-dioxide levels, the researchers recommend, should be brought back from whatever they peak at to a level a little higher than the Holocene’s and a little lower than today’s.

The Earth’s history shows that the planet can indeed tip from one state to another, amplifying the sometimes modest changes which trigger the transition. The nightmare would be a flip to some permanently altered state much further from the Holocene than things are today: a hotter world with much less productive oceans, for example. Such things cannot be ruled out. On the other hand, the invocation of poorly defined tipping points is a well worn rhetorical trick for stirring the fears of people unperturbed by current, relatively modest, changes.

In general, the goal of staying at or returning close to Holocene conditions seems judicious. It remains to be seen if it is practical. The Holocene never supported a civilisation of 10 billion reasonably rich people, as the Anthropocene must seek to do, and there is no proof that such a population can fit into a planetary pot so circumscribed. So it may be that a “good Anthropocene”, stable and productive for humans and other species they rely on, is one in which some aspects of the Earth system’s behaviour are lastingly changed. For example, the Holocene would, without human intervention, have eventually come to an end in a new ice age. Keeping the Anthropocene free of ice ages will probably strike most people as a good idea.

2) The New York Times has a discussion between a number of thinkers on the Anthropocene – The Age of Anthropocene: Should We Worry? The discussants include Jon Foley, Erle Ellis, Ruth DeFreis, and Brad Allenby.

3) There are also shorter articles in the BBC and Discovery News.

Erle Ellis on “Postnatural” Environmentalism

Erle Ellis, whom has mapped the world’s anthromes, writes an provocative editorial in Wired about what environmentalism means in the Anthopocene. In  Stop Trying to Save the Planet he proposes a “postnatural” environmentalism:

Nature is gone. It was gone before you were born, before your parents were born, before the pilgrims arrived, before the pyramids were built. You are living on a used planet.

If this bothers you, get over it. We now live in the Anthropocene ― a geological epoch in which Earth’s atmosphere, lithosphere and biosphere are shaped primarily by human forces.

Yes, nature is still around ― back-seat driving, annoying us with natural disasters from time to time, and everywhere present in the background ― but definitely in no position to take the wheel. That’s our job now. Don’t blame nature for global warming, sea level rise, invasive species, mass extinctions, crop failures and poverty. That’s our thing.

… Ours is a used planet. Thanks to us, Earth has become warmer, less forested and less biodiverse for millenniums.

So what now? First of all, we’ve got to stop trying to save the planet. For better or for worse, nature has long been what we have made it, and what we will make it.

And it’s time for a “postnatural” environmentalism. Postnaturalism is not about recycling your garbage, it is about making something good out of grandpa’s garbage and leaving the very best garbage for your grandchildren. Postnaturalism means loving and embracing our human nature, the nature we have created to feed ourselves, the nature we live in. What good is environmentalism if it makes you depressed about the future?

This is about recognizing that our farms, and even our backyards and cities, are the most important wildlife refuges in the world and should be managed as such. We can keep people out of places we want to think of as wild, but these places will still be changing because of global warming and the alien species we introduce without even trying.