Or, How the Anthropocene Will Not be Good or Bad…

Differing views of the anthropocene have been going around, some bright, some dark.

If we accept the notion of the anthropocene, then we are in a new era. A new geological era (actually: epoch), at least. Neither discourse nor behavior just change because we label something in a different way, however – and it shows.

Both views of the anthropocene just prove the problem that we are not really at home here in this world, as it is and we are.

Thus, we forget to work on becoming better at being human and living appropriately for that, but rather act as if we were just visiting, remaining on the surface of things.

All Good / All Bad

The way this plays out, first of all, is in how the discussion we have seen so far has followed the well-trodden paths of arguments about the human role and our likely future, where ideology and selective perspectives reign supreme:

Argue that some things have gotten better (e.g., lower mortality and higher life expectancy), and be reminded of everything that has gone badly, makes this progress problematic, and threatens to unravel in the future (human morbidity, still-rising population numbers, consumption and ecological impact,…).

Suggest that things need not be bad and getting worse, and get put down as someone who’s just in denial.

But mention things that aren’t looking bright and, in fact, point to an even bleaker future (energy, resources, climate change, biodiversity loss), find yourself called a Cassandra and made the butt of jokes about all the failed predictions of apocalypse.

The Non-Middle Reality

Reality is probably not in the middle, but in both sides at once.

There is progress, and there are problems. It is the best of times and it is the worst of times.

In fact, thinking of how things truly are, there are no sides. The only appropriate answer, the answer that is at home with what reality is like, is not “things are good” or “things are bad,” “humanity is good” or “humanity is bad.”

It is “yes.”

Are things getting better or worse? Yes.

(Just think of things like food, nutrition, agriculture – it overfeeds some people and lets others hunger, it is destructive and unsustainable and it has been the foundation of human civilization for millennia.)

Will the anthropocene be good or bad? Yes.

(“Prediction is difficult, especially about the future.” ~Niels Bohr. Or Yogi Berra. Good or bad for whom? In which way?)

The Answer is Yes to All

“Yes” isn’t the appropriate answer because “good” or “bad” is just a matter of interpretation.

It is appropriate because the world is a complicated place, we are complicated beings, and the future will – just like the present – be both good and bad.

Our not being quite at home in this world also vexes us when it comes to the ways we live, which will decide what the anthropocene eventually turns out to be: better or worse.

Here, “good” and “bad” do have manifestations in reality, and it is a matter of interpretation. To some extent, at least.

Driving ourselves to extinction? Bad.

Driving other species to extinction, thus leaving the world a poorer place? Not ideal, at least (especially if it should lead to our own extinction or if we retain even a thread of moral thinking that goes beyond ourselves).

Leaving our problems for others to clean up? Well, sometimes a part of life, but not something adults typically do when they are aware of their impact and when they were raised well.

Not using all tools we have at hand to make current lives better? Not exactly good, either…

… and in the combination of such thoughts, we come right back to the problem with the superficial discourse.

Connections

When we just focus on one side or another, we end up with answers that again separate what is really together.

Then, thinking that there are sides, we also think that we must take sides – and we overlook the need for and potential of an ecological perspective. A view, that is, which focuses on the connections in their relevant contexts – and thus, a different question: Not “Is it good or bad?” but “How can we make it better?”

This is just the question that currently causes the ecologically-oriented person the greatest grief.

Those who just deny reality in thinking that growth (of a current fashion) will and can and must go on forever seem to have a monopoly on the argument for progress and better lives, even as the world is changing in front of our very eyes.

We are past many ecological boundaries, past equitable and sustainable ecological footprints, past 400 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere – but just because things haven’t gone seriously downhill, the argument remains that things will turn out better than feared, and maybe even better than hoped.

Those who see all those problems and therefore feel the need to warn against a dark anthropocene, however, are so focused on the negative consequences and the problems that are probably up ahead, they seem to be unable of arguing for any “better” that is not only better than their dire predictions, but better than the present.

We will, however, as George Monbiot realized, need to remember that we are not only fighting against destruction and despoliation and dire consequences for future generations, we are also fighting for this generation and ourselves, for better and richer lives in species-rich and ecologically well-functioning ecosystems, from wilderness to cities.

For the love of our own kind, and others, and this fantastic home of ours. For our own sake and perhaps that of the cosmos, as …

“we are the local embodiment of a Cosmos grown to self-awareness. We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose. Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive is owed not just to ourselves but also to that Cosmos, ancient and vast, from which we spring.”

Carl Sagan

From such an ecological perspective, there are many ways we could make our ways of living a lot better.

For example, shaping agriculture and foodways that provide employment and entrepreneurial opportunities while protecting and promoting (both ‘wild’ and agricultural) biodiversity, being more resilient (e.g. against climatic disruptions) and more sustainable through that, and providing diets that are nutritious and healthier than what we currently produce and get sold.

From such a perspective, we have been learning that there is no single ingredient or way of eating that is just perfect for our health, but there are relationships between ways of eating (with diverse fresh ingredients), active lifestyles, and our gut microbiota, that have major influences on our health and even well-being.

Learning and working in such ways, we can remember that we think of ourselves as both a part of this world and above it in terms of our abilities to think and plan ahead, learn and understand – and we’d do well to remember this positive view of ourselves and work towards its realization.

*The* world may not depend on it – but our world does.