Hope in the age of man
SCIENTISTS interested in drawing attention to the human transformation of planet Earth have begun calling the current geological epoch the Anthropocene -- the age of man. Naming an epoch is serious business -- and in this case the new name is well deserved, given humanity's enormous alteration of the Earth.
We have acidified the oceans and changed global climate with our use of fossil fuels. We have bent more than 75% of the ice-free land on Earth to our will. We have built so many dams that half of the world's river flow is regulated, stored or impeded by human-made structures. We have transported plants and animals hither and yon as crops and livestock and as accidental stowaways.
Some environmentalists see the Anthropocene as a disaster by definition, since they see all human changes as degradation of a pristine Eden. If your definition demands that nature be completely untouched by humans, there is indeed no nature left.
But in fact, humans have been changing ecosystems for millenniums. We have learned that ecosystems are not -- and have never been -- static entities. The notion of a virgin, pristine wilderness was understandable in the days of Captain Cook -- but since the emergence of modern ecology and archaeology, it has been systematically dismantled by empirical evidence.
Yet even scientists are still misled by the idea of an untouched, natural paradise. A paper published in October by a group of scientists at the University of California, Davis, in the journal Conservation Biology criticises the idea of the Anthropocene because it leaves "the impression that nowhere on earth is natural" and because "the concept of pervasive human-caused change may cultivate hopelessness in those dedicated to conservation and may even be an impetus for accelerated changes in land use motivated by profit."
We defend the term "Anthropocene," and we do not accept the argument that the concept opens the floodgates of unrestricted development. To assert that without the ideal of pristine wilderness, humanity will inevitably go on ruining our best-loved landscapes is analogous to Dostoyevsky's dictum that without God, everything is permitted.
Yes, we live in the Anthropocene -- but that does not mean we inhabit an ecological hell. Our management and care of natural places and the millions of other species with which we share the planet could and should be improved. But we must do far more than just hold back the tide of change and build higher and stronger fences around the Arctic, the Himalayas and the other "relatively intact ecosystems," as the scientists put it in their article.
We can accept the reality of humanity's reshaping of the environment without giving up in despair. We can, and we should, consider actively moving species at risk of extinction from climate change. We can design ecosystems to maintain wildlife, filter water and sequester carbon. We can restore once magnificent ecosystems like Yellowstone and the Gulf of Mexico to new glories -- but glories that still contain a heavy hand of man.
We can fight sprawl and mindless development even as we cherish the exuberant nature that can increasingly be found in our own cities, from native gardens to green roofs. And we can do this even as we continue to fight for international agreements on limiting the greenhouses gases that are warming the planet.
The Anthropocene does not represent the failure of environmentalism. It is the stage on which a new, more positive and forward-looking environmentalism can be built. This is the Earth we have created, and we have a duty, as a species, to protect it and manage it with love and intelligence. It is not ruined. It is beautiful still, and can be even more beautiful, if we work together and care for it.
Emma Marris is the Author of Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World.
Peter Kareiva is the Chief Scientist for the Nature Conservancy.
Joseph Mascaro is a Postdoctoral Associate at the Carnegie Institution for Science and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute.
Erle C. Ellis is an Associate Professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
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