The Waterpocket Fold rock formation in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Are we ready for the Anthropocene?

By Desirée Fiske, 2018-2019 Sustainability Leadership Fellow and Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Political Science

The extent of human impact on the Earth system has prompted debates about how and if humanity has provoked a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene. Conversations about human influence in natural systems and tipping points are not revolutionary, but the Anthropocene moves beyond these conversations to spark questions about the temporal significance of human existence. As the Anthropocene disrupts the scientific community, academia, media outlets, and the public, it simultaneously demonstrates rhetorical impact which poses ethical, moral, and existential questions to society. Can the layers of sandstone in Grand Staircase-Escalante tell us a story as complicated as that of human industrialization? Where do subways and strip malls sit in the geologic record as compared to the Jurassic stone temples of the Waterpocket Fold?

The Waterpocket Fold rock formation in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
The sun sets on the Waterpocket Fold, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Credit: Desirée Fiske, 2018.

The Anthropocene signifies anthropogenic environmental changes that incite debates which extend from geology to the social sciences. Due to its interdisciplinary provocation, the International Commission on Stratigraphy has brought together an Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) consisting of experts in (but not limited to) geology, climatology, biology, anthropology, archaeology, and history to determine a significant stratigraphic marker that backs arguments for a new epoch. In 2017, the AWG presented a summary of evidence and recommendations for the Anthropocene and last year published a list of suggestions for significant markers. Despite the report, the International Union of Geological Sciences’ jury is still out on whether or not to formalize an Anthropocene epoch.

USGS metal marker embedded in stone in Inyo County, CA.
USGS Luceil Benchmark, Inyo County, California. Credit: Desirée Fiske, 2017.

The Anthropocene is complicated; it homogenizes humanity and recharges global debates of responsibility for environmental change – a problem that stunted international climate change negotiations for decades. Some suggest that rather than the Anthropocene we should consider the Capitalocene or Chthulucene. Regardless of the term you may favor, there’s no way around the fact that this topic invigorates conversations about human relations to the Earth system and the influences of science and technology. These topics are deeply political and beg the question: are political institutions designed to confront the Anthropocene?

Sustainable development has reformed ethics of economic development and management of natural resources, but, thirty-something years later, “sustainable” activities have not proven to significantly reduce global climate change and biodiversity loss. Perhaps this is because sustainable development continues to favor homo sapiens as prime orchestraters of the Earth. Although a geological era of anthrops linguistically centers humans in the conversation, it underscores that we are part of the Earth system, not above and beyond it. The Anthropocene highlights the dynamism of the Earth as it precipitates feedbacks to human interference. In a way, we must face species mortality. Bio-, geo-, social-engineering our way in the Anthropocene guides much of our future-planning but raises questions and uncertainties about unintended consequences. Moral questions arise as we continue to assume we can manipulate the Earth without unanticipated repercussions; is this the role we want to occupy?

Rocky canyons and plateaus at sunset.
Differential lighting and the variegated palette of the Colorado Plateau please the eye from Bears Ears (distant), to Bullfrog and Hall’s Creek in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and Waterpocket Fold in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument (forefront). Credit: Desirée Fiske, 2018.

Revisiting human-nature relations in a more intimate and spiritual manner brings questions of the impacts of scientific approval and knowledge to the forefront. The interface of science and policy has expanded over the past several decades, with global action against ozone depletion as the poster child for persuasive science. However, as societies face unprecedented conditions in the Anthropocene, is science the only knowledge needed in advisory roles? This point should especially be scrutinized given it is largely scientific and technological advances that have brought about drastic environmental challenges. Although scientific predictions can aide human forecasting, lived experiences and indigenous knowledges may find equal footing as experts in Anthropocene politics.

The characteristics of Anthropocene conditions alone demand changes to current political processes, such as expedited decision-making during environmental tragedies, but some suggest the Anthropocene calls for a shift in global politics at the scale of the post-World War II era. This shift must include political spaces that welcome diverse knowledge, especially those indigenous to ecosystems and lands, alongside scientists, experts, and politicians; science and especially politics alone do not fully or holistically address the complexity of human-nature relations. Human-nature relations become even more complicated when countries are strained to make decisions that interfere with human rights and present challenges to moral obligations in light of planetary changes. Ecuador, Bolivia, and New Zealand have already granted political rights to nature, which could compromise human development in favor of ecosystem or species protection. However, citizens of a given region may be willing to forfeit their rights – including political and national identities – to nature, as evidenced by the reality of climate refugees. Sea-level rise threatens regions’ physical habitability, forcing abandonment, resettlement, or extreme adaptation. Citizens of the island of Tuvalu sought and find refuge in New Zealand.  Consequently, New Zealand authorities have pitched what would be the Earth’s first climate refugee visa programs.    

Geologic time includes now; the political ramifications of the Anthropocene, both as a physical and rhetorical reality, are presently occurring. Broad-ranging considerations abound: from the influence of science and technology, to the value of diverse knowledges, the existential and moral questioning of human perceptions of nature, to the realities of natural repercussions for human actions. It is undeniable that politics are attempting to confront the implications of uncertain change; but will these changes be what societies need? Must we confront our geological (in)significance in the process? In other words: Are we ready for the Anthropocene?

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