Down on the Ground with the Anthropocene

I recently led, or pushed (think of “pushing a chain”) a seminar at Western State Colorado University, titled “The Colorado River in the Anthropocene.” The ‘Anthropocene,” as many of you have probably read or observed yourselves, is a geological epoch acknowledging that humans have, over the course of the past 200-10,000 years, begun imposing the kinds of largely irreversible changes on the planet’s ecological operating systems heretofore associated with volcanoes, earthquakes, and epic climate events like extended droughts or continental ice accumulations.

Currently observable climate changes are what set us to really thinking about this, climate changes that correlate with our act of pumping back into the atmosphere and the carbon cycle billions of tons of carbon that had been sequestered underground for eons as fossil fuels. The resulting back-up of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps heat, raising the ambient temperature in a planetary way that affects the vast atmospheric weather-generating systems in unpredictable but also unignorable ways, the way turning up the heat under a pot of water on the stove gradually increases unpredictable activity culminating in the chaos of boiling.

But a changing climate is only one of the geological-scale changes we have imposed on the planet, mostly inadvertently as unforeseen consequences of our efforts to deal with our global success as a species. The conversion of vast areas of biologically diverse prairie and forest into monocultures; the transfer of megatons of rich soil to ocean silt, leaving new deserts on land and dead zones at sea; the altering of most major river systems around the world with dams and diversions; the creation of urban heat islands with large areas of paved-over and built-over land; the unleashing of myriad new chemical compounds with unpredictable impacts on other plant and animal life forms – et cetera. One could go on, and make it sound as bad as one wanted to.

Students at Western rebel against this. “All we hear about is how bad the situation is, problems everywhere we turn, et cetera et cetera.” It’s not that they – the best of them anyway – want to ignore reality, like the Republican Party today; they just want the discourse to move on to what to do about it all. I empathize with that; I get tired of that relentless doomologue too, and the way our lamestream media love to inflate the bad news and conflicts as a way of attracting audiences for their ads and commercials pushing products that generally worsen the situation.

So I tried to conduct the seminar as though “the Anthropocene” – and our acknowledgement of it – could be our opportunity to start doing consciously and carefully what we’ve been doing only semi-consciously and clumsily: better adapting the planet itself to the needs of “the life project,” trying to repair what we have inadvertently damaged, and moving forward (consciously and carefully) with things that might work for us without destroying other life in the process.

This effort requires a couple of major steps for us humans. First, it requires us to abandon the myth of the Garden of Eden – at least of the Garden as memory: the old notion that the earth was a perfect place created and administered by Father God and/or Mother Nature until we humans messed it all up through our original and creative sin(s).

The long geological record pretty clearly demolishes that notion; the planet has always been a chaotic mess: eruptive earth and its internal fire at constant mindless war with erosive air and water and their external solar fire. Life – mainly plant life – has probably done more to comb the violence out of those mindless elemental wars than it has to make them worse, but the planet itself – rock islands floating on a sea of fire and pushing each other around under a capricious atmosphere – has often wiped out whole ecosystems, either in the blink of an earthquake or under a slow epoch of grinding ice or baking drought, or both at once. We aren’t busting up any clockwork creation; the planet will always be more capable of destroying us than we are of destroying it; all we can really do in a constructive way is to try to keep it livable through the thin fragile skin of the biosphere.

But if the first major step in moving forward as a species is to abandon the idea of the Garden as a memory, the second major step might be to recognize the Garden as a vision toward which we can move if we really wake up to the task. This means buckling down first, now, to the challenges associated with redeeming ourselves from the mostly inadvertent mistakes we have made – sometimes through a kind of hey-watch-this-dude hubris, but mostly just through well-meant efforts to deal retroactively and piecemeal with our success as a species, as measured by our ever-increasing global population.

The question is how to organize ourselves for that work – or maybe first, how to motivate ourselves for it. It is becoming apparent that trying to scare ourselves into doing something is a poor strategy; we just get immobilized by a kind of general depression, or slip into a “last days” party mood.

The end of that seminar coincided with the global meeting in Paris of political, economic and scientific leaders from all over the planet to try to come up with an international agreement fulfilling the old cowboy maxim: if you find you’re digging yourself into a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging. This obvious first step of course immediately set off the status quo economic gang: to stop digging will destroy the economy! If we don’t keep on digging the black hole of our consumer economy, we’ll slide into global depression! And there is an element of truth to that. We know that we have to cut back significantly on carbon emissions, and on the erosion of topsoil, and on the use of ag chemicals that cause dead zones in the ocean, and so on and so on. But to “just stop digging” is not enough; what will we do instead, to keep everyone meaningfully involved in our mutual desire to survive and thrive?

That challenge led a headstrong group of “scholars, scientists, campaigners, and citizens” operating as “The Breakthrough Institute” to issue an “Ecomodernist Manifesto”: “We write,” they say, “with the conviction that knowledge and technology, applied with wisdom, might allow for a good, or even great, Anthropocene. A good Anthropocene demands that humans use their growing social, economic, and technological powers to make life better for people, stabilize climate, and protect the natural world.”

I appreciate their positive intentions in issuing this “Manifesto,” but do harbor serious concerns about some of the ideas and exhortations therein. (You can check the Manifesto out yourself, if interested, at www.ecomodernism.org/manifesto-english.) I don’t want to go into an analysis of the document itself, at least not right now; instead I want to raise my growing concern with a fundamental underlying assumption of the document – which is probably also a concern about the Colorado Water Plan I’ve been working on with a few hundred other Coloradans for the past several years, and most other efforts along those lines. Maybe an assumption underlying all of our brave new neo-Enlightenment foundational documents from the U.S. Constitution on.

My concern is with the phrase that is, in the Manifesto’s introduction, almost tossed off as an aside: “(if) applied with wisdom.” Is there any indication, in recent American history, that we are capable of applying “knowledge and technology” with anything resembling wisdom? Is there any indication in really recent American history that we even capable of “applying” anything with wisdom”?

This is a serious question when it comes to something as big as converting a mass (and massive) civilization thoroughly grounded in fossil-fuel technology to a sustainable renewable-energy civilization. A decade or so ago, the same Breakthrough Institute that brings us the Ecomodernist Manifesto tried to capture the imagination of America with a call for a “New Apollo Project.” This is, was, to be a huge $300 billion conversion (probably a $ trillion by now) that would essentially retool, replumb and rewire America for energy sustainability over the course of a decade or so, the way the 1960s Apollo Project performed over a decade what seemed in 1960 to be the unimaginable task of putting a man on the moon.

Breakthrough has worked hard to bring labor, capital and government on board with this idea, but the early stirrings of interest subsided through the Bush slumber, even though this is clearly a more important project than the comparatively meaningless trick of planting a flag on the moon. And even though study after study has shown that a well-planned transition away from a carbon civilization could boom the economy, if it were – uh, applied with wisdom.

The deep and sort of ugly question here is – are we truly a rational species? Capable of truly acting in our own long-term self-interest (like to the next generation), as the classical economists want us to believe? Maybe we are – in the short term. But long-term considerations, even just a decade, seem to short out our rationality – especially if it requires personal changes in the convenient ways we do things.

I wanted my students to leave our seminar with a clear sense of some hope-full alternatives for the Anthropocene future, but it would sure have been nice to have had some positive examples….