Thursday, May 26, 2011

“Welcome to the Anthropocene,” but what the f’ is that?

I would dislike the word “Anthropocene” on facebook if I could dislike on facebook, but I’d be popping the happy bubble of social media. I will just dislike the word on my own page, please take all of the offenses to anthropocentricism as intended.

I first learned the family of words “anthropocentricity” from a philosophy professor who specialized in the theory of pain and is also an avid environmentalist. I thought the word, and all of its variations people use to pontificate, is rather ironic - here we are, talking about ourselves as if we were not here. But my professor insisted that we learn the word and its meaning. I remember thinking how odd it was to have a sense of distaste for the word even then, these days I can barely stand using it or reading it; but it’s like crack, once you are hooked, you are HOOKED.

I got my fix of that oh so sweet “crack” today reading the Economist. The article’s title drew me in, and immediately my Spidey senses kicked in:

“THE Earth is a big thing; if you divided it up evenly among its 7 billion inhabitants, they would get almost 1 trillion tonnes each.”

Only humans could imagine such a thing, as if no other creature mattered on earth and we could just cut it up and sell it. Does the author intent to use the anthropogenic meaning correctly? I kept reading. As it turned out, the Welcome into Anthropocene is a rather stern warning and yes, the author did in fact pontificate correctly. The minor confusion is perhaps for artistic value. Surprisingly, the article aimed its sights square on the heart of sustainability thinking.

“Almost 90% of the world’s plant activity, by some estimates, is to be found in ecosystems where humans play a significant role. Although farms have changed the world for millennia, the Anthropocene advent of fossil fuels, scientific breeding and, most of all, artificial nitrogen fertiliser has vastly increased agriculture’s power. The relevance of wilderness to our world has shrunk in the face of this onslaught. The sheer amount of biomass now walking around the planet in the form of humans and livestock handily outweighs that of all other large animals. The world’s ecosystems are dominated by an increasingly homogenous and limited suite of cosmopolitan crops, livestock and creatures that get on well in environments dominated by humans. Creatures less useful or adaptable get short shrift: the extinction rate is running far higher than during normal geological periods.”

I could not have said it any better. It’s obvious now why I dislike the word and my senses tingled when I see it in use. It also explains why I occasionally use the word when I have something to say. My professor had made sure we were sufficiently disgusted by the mere presence of the word that we inadvertently put human centered thinking subordinate to the holistic presences of everything else.

“For humans to be intimately involved in many interconnected processes at a planetary scale carries huge risks. But it is possible to add to the planet’s resilience, often through simple and piecemeal actions, if they are well thought through. And one of the messages of the Anthropocene is that piecemeal actions can quickly add up to planetary change.”

I think the Dali Lama had once said that when he is troubled, he would think of the eons and eons of our universe and the insignificance of our own existence and all of his worries would melt away: the mere ability to put yourself outside of an anthropocentric state of mind is enlightening, but it’s a disappointment if we cannot make any meaningful progress from it. I for one don’t want to be the blissful monk waiting for the world to change. I want to change the world.

“The Anthropocene is different. It is one of those moments where a scientific realisation, like Copernicus grasping that the Earth goes round the sun, could fundamentally change people’s view of things far beyond science. It means more than rewriting some textbooks. It means thinking afresh about the relationship between people and their world and acting accordingly.”

Here is the new lesson I learned today: acknowledging anthropocentricism is like confronting denial, what is left is progress. I had once been conditioned to loath the word, now it has to take on a whole new meaning – almost a paradigm shift.

I’m glad I have a tingling when I see the word anthropo-anything, it’s even more like pain – you feel it to feel alive and you want to do something about it. Just don't put a band-aid on it . . .

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