Nature is Over (updated)
by Adam Robbert
So reads THIS article in the Times from earlier this week. Unfortunately you need a subscription to read the whole article. Thankfully, THIS helpful blogger has reposted large sections from the original piece. Here are two notable excerpts:
For a species that has been around for less than 1% of 1% of the earth’s 4.5 billion-year history, Homo sapiens has certainly put its stamp on the place. Humans have had a direct impact on more than three-quarters of the ice-free land on earth. Almost 90% of the world’s plant activity now takes place in ecosystems where people play a significant role. We’ve stripped the original forests from much of North America and Europe and helped push tens of thousands of species into extinction. Even in the vast oceans, among the few areas of the planet uninhabited by humans, our presence has been felt thanks to overfishing and marine pollution. Through artificial fertilizers–which have dramatically increased food production and, with it, human population–we’ve transformed huge amounts of nitrogen from an inert gas in our atmosphere into an active ingredient in our soil, the runoff from which has created massive aquatic dead zones in coastal areas. And all the CO2 that the 7 billion-plus humans on earth emit is rapidly changing the climate–and altering the very nature of the planet.
Human activity now shapes the earth more than any other independent geologic or climatic factor. Our impact on the planet’s surface and atmosphere has become so powerful that scientists are considering changing the way we measure geologic time. Right now we’re officially living in the Holocene epoch, a particularly pleasant period that started when the last ice age ended 12,000 years ago. But some scientists argue that we’ve broken into a new epoch that they call the Anthropocene: the age of man. “Human dominance of biological, chemical and geological processes on Earth is already an undeniable reality,” writes Paul Crutzen, the Nobel Prize–winning atmospheric chemist who first popularized the term Anthropocene. “It’s no longer us against ‘Nature.’ Instead, it’s we who decide what nature is and what it will be.”
I don’t see how anyone can really disagree with these statements. The emergence of humanity as a geological force on Earth can hardly be doubted, and the evolutionary trajectory of life on Earth will be forever changed because of our actions. What I am less convinced of are some of the conclusions the article begins to draw:
But managing the Anthropocene will necessitate more than simply banning certain pollutants or activities. It will also mean promoting the sort of technology that environmentalists have often opposed, from nuclear power–still the biggest carbon-free utility-scale energy source, despite the risk of accidents and the problem of radioactive-waste disposal–to genetically modified crops that could allow us to grow more food on less land, saving precious space for wildlife. It will mean privileging cities, because dense urban developments turn out to be the most sustainable and efficient settlements on the planet. And if we prove unable to quickly reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, we may be required to consciously fiddle with the climate through geoengineering, using artificial clouds or other planetary-scale technology to reduce the earth’s temperature directly.
Of course, humans have been effectively geoengineering the planet for centuries. We were just doing it unconsciously, as a by-product of our relentless expansion. Humans aren’t even the first species to create change on a planetary scale. The earth’s atmosphere is oxygenated because cyanobacteria helped produce that gas more than 2 billion years ago. But even though cyanobacteria weren’t conscious of what they were doing, we are, or at least we should be. Our ability to comprehend the full extent of the human impact on earth puts us in a unique position as planetary gardeners, a responsibility we have no choice but to take on. We have been lucky for much of our species’ existence, blessed by the comfortably warm climate of the Holocene, able to spread our growing numbers across a seemingly limitless planet.
While I tend to agree that the fundamental engineering and design problem of the next century centers on how to make urban living significantly less destructive, I have three main issues with the rest of the writers suggestions:
- I am unconvinced that genetically modified foods will play a substantial role in “managing the anthropocene.” The so-called green revolution that emerged roughly between the 1940s-70s is often credited for radically boosting agricultural production through a combination of industrial technology, chemical additives, and, later, GMOs. From the perspective of a certain capitalist calculus, an industrial boom did indeed occur. But whether or not the green revolution necessarily represented an overall increase in agricultural efficiency (when measured in terms of calories required to produce food vs. calories obtained from food) is debatable. Somehow, agriculture will have to be done within cities themselves (e.g., through “skyfarming“) to reduce the pollution associated with the transportation of foods over large distances. However, its unclear whether this approach necessitates GMO foods (clearly it will require quite a bit of technologically driven hydroponic farming).
- I am unconvinced that nuclear power will be the power of the future. Here I have to hope that (a) we will find a way to design and connect urban centers in a much more efficient way; (b) agribusiness will shift away from producing meats from large animals (principally cows); (c) that miniaturization and virtualization will take the place of shipping large goods and people around the world; and (d) that militarization is greatly de-escalated. Buildings, cows, transportation, and war represent the four largest polluters in the world. [By contrast, individuals consuming goods and services (in the US anyway) produce something like 1.2% (I can't remember the exact figure, but it is ridiculously low) of US pollution.] When you look at the numbers on things like solar, wind, and biofuels the viability of using these fuels as replacements for the carbon economy looks horribly bleak; unless some drastic changes are made. We need to address the fact that, in most discussions such as these, “the American way of life is not negotiable,” when in fact it is the American way of life that needs to change, and not something we should try to perpetuate by appealing to nuclear energy. Here our goals should be understanding (a) why the drive to centralized forms of power (e.g., coal, oil, and nuclear) always take precedence over decentralized forms of power (e.g., turning all buildings, roads, and infrastructure into energy-generating units linked through smart grids); and (b) what psychological mechanisms are in play that prevent people from changing destructive habits even in the face of overwhelming evidence that a shift needs to occur. Neither are technical problems. Both are extraordinarily complicated and under-researched.
- The article suggests that geoengineering might a offer way out. Of course, as the article points out, all organisms are always-already geoengineers to some extent, but I reckon that geoclimate systems don’t work like simple input-output devices that we can tinker with through technological means. But this is an empirical question that we have neither data nor capacity to verify (I’m not even sure what verification would mean in the context of geoengineering given the enormous time-scales that would come into play). As readers of this blog well know, I’m a supporter of big-thinking, speculative projects, I’m just not really sold on this one. I’m also not excited about the way the writer chose to naturalize the move into the anthropocene by invoking old chestnuts like ‘well, cyanobacteria had a huge impact, and so are we, it’s just a natural process.’ Yes, from a certain perspective humans are different in degree and not in kind from other Earth-shaping organisms, but the fact is we can choose whether or not we want to continue perpetuating another mass extinction event. Lets not naturalize our behavior so quickly.
A final question we should be asking ourselves here (and it underlies each of the points I have articulated above) is: where the hell is the political dimension to this whole article? We cannot behave as though managing the anthropocene is simply an engineering problem when so many of the issues raised above have to do precisely with global political economies, terms of trade, and modes of exploitation that are not just ecological, but social as well.