The Anthropocene is not about the environment, it’s not even about climate change – it’s about “us”.
It’s about “us” in communities and societies and families and nations. It’s about “us” in our workplaces, our professions, our institutions of knowledge and learning, our systems of governance. It’s about “us” reflected in and fashioned by our shared cultures. It’s about “us” in relationship with other life forms on this planet.
And it’s about “us” learning and acting together to meet challenges new in our evolutionary experience and on historically unprecedented scales.
The Anthropocene is the Age of Humans. It is about what we do together, collectively, to reframe our most fundamental relationship – our place in the Earth’s web of life.
A Species Swarming
There has never been anything like 7.5 billion humans on Earth. There has never been another species able to invade almost every ecological niche in the biosphere from the equator to the poles. There has never been a single species capable of disrupting the life support systems of the planet.
For the first time in the evolution of human cultures on planet Earth our impacts on the Earth System have become global, systemic and inter-connected.
This is in part a function of our sheer weight of numbers and of the even greater numbers of the animals we breed for our use. And it’s also a function of our ever more powerful technologies and the capacity they give us to control, exploit and manipulate the environment. But most significantly it’s a function of a globalised system of hyper-production and consumption that depends on continuous growth to maintain its stability.
We are a species in swarming mode consuming our host, with a technological hubris largely unrestrained by ethical or ecological limitations, driven by a global ponzi scheme.
The term “Anthropocene” has quite rapidly come to be used as a kind of shorthand for the rupture in the Earth System that our species has caused. The changes we have triggered just in my lifetime will endure for thousands of years. There is no going back.
Looking Beyond the Physical Sciences
While the concept of “Anthropocene” arose from the physical sciences that have steadily revealed the scale and nature of human impacts on the planet and its precious web of life, we must remember that this research is describing the symptoms, not the drivers of the long emergency we now face.
Because these symptoms are most obviously manifest in physical systems like the climate, the water cycle, the carbon cycle, the phosphorus and nitrogen cycles, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, etc, much policy debate and informed public awareness is focused in the physical domain. We talk as if each symptom is a discrete problem with its own answer – renewable energy to solve climate change for instance – and by addressing them separately we can ignore unpredictable knock-on effects that cascade across the whole Earth System. Thus responses have been conceived within dubious notions of linear causality and framed in terms of technological innovation and hard-systems interventions. This encourages a very dangerous naiviety, a belief that the answers are “out there” in the hands of scientists and technocrats and politicians.
But the symptoms are also geo-political, economic, social, and yes personal. They include never ending wars, the spread of violent extremism, economic instability, huge disparities of wealth and power, rising food and water shortages coexisting with massive waste, an ever-increasing risk of pandemics, and personal despair, demoralisation, and trauma.
These are soft-systems issues – driven by cultural understandings, aspirations, behaviours and values.
Most of the public debate about specific aspects of the Anthropocene, like climate change, takes for granted the maintenance of the economic, social and cultural status quo, even as it unravels around us. Our political, commercial and educational institutions are deeply wedded to “business-as-usual”.
Yet we know full well that business-as-usual is no longer a viable option.
Mitigate, Adapt, Transform
But don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that urgent interventions to address the most immediately threatening environmental crises we have provoked are pointless. Quite to the contrary. There is a critical need to look at every possible way of mitigating human impacts on the Earth System – like reducing greenhouse gas emissions – while remembering that all human knowledge is provisional and our actions must always be tempered by the precautionary principle.
And at the same time we need to develop comprehensive adaptation strategies to deal with the disruptions we cannot avoid whatever we do, particularly for the most vulnerable communities, populations and social infrastructures.
But these are palliatives. Ultimately our future will depend on our success in creatively transforming the soft systems – the human systems – that are driving the disruption of the Earth System. We need to redesign key social and economic institutions and rethink our core cultural values.
This is already happening in a process of experimentation and collective learning from the bottom up in countless communities around the world. Despite their rhetoric, it is not governments and corporations that are demonstrating the necessary creativity and agility. Everywhere we can see that they are deeply compromised by the blinkers of short-termism, the greed of vested interests, institutional inertia and, all too often, corruption. It’s grassroots organisations, local communities, collaborative and mutual enterprises, and civil society movements that are nurturing real change.
Another essential arena for transformational change is our collective professional and social practices. Indeed, it is what we do at work in collaboration with colleagues, and in our communities and social networks together with friends and neighbours, that we most directly participate in co-creating the future. And at the moment we are creating a present and a future that is at odds with the viability of our species and of many others as well.
This is the focus of the Anthropocene Transition Project at the UTS Business School here in Sydney. Its aim is to invite professional cohorts to get a grip on the nature of the Anthropocene and start to rethink their professional practices to meet the challenges ahead.
I recently received an email headed: “What’s your 1,000 year plan?” It was a reference to a talk by Canadian author Rick Antonson called Cathedral Thinking.
Antonson reminds us that when medieval architects, artisans and labourers began work on one of the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe they knew they would not live to see its completion.
Such undertakings were the work of generations – each making a contribution to a collaborative venture that others would build on to realise its fulfilment in the future.
How different from our myopic contemporary mindset with its immersive focus on the 24 hour news cycle, 3 or 4 year electoral cycles, quarterly corporate reporting, and short-term business cycles.
It struck me that cathedral thinking is closer to what we need to be doing now to prepare for the Anthropocene transition. What should our generation be doing to lay the foundations for those to come who must face the task of transforming our institutions, our professions, our social structures and our core cultural values to restore a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship?
How can we step out of our disciplinary and professional silos, take off our institutional blinkers, and start to explore more powerful trans-disciplinary and trans-cultural approaches to knowing, understanding and acting in the world?
There are no easy answers or short-term fixes. This is a challenge not only for our generation but for many to come. Perhaps the most important task for us now is to frame the deep questions that our professions and institutions must grapple with.
As Albert Einstein is reported to have said…