The Problem of Anthropocene and Earth Care

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The earth has undergone a new environmental paradigm, a new geological epoch. The Anthropocene, or Age of Humans, is the term for the new era (here, I used the terms ‘epoch’ ‘era’ and ‘age’ interchangeably) which marks the unprecedented impacts mankind has on the earth’s ecosystems and geobiochemistry.

The basic idea is that man has become the dominant force in the earth history and, as a result of its actions, is destroying life on the planet and the planet itself. Popularized by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in 2000s, the term Anthropocene has since become a hot topic in public, scientific, and political spheres.

The Start-Date of a New Era?

The very term and the starting date for the Anthropocene is not without contentions, however. Geologists have to confirm the starting date, which they call the “golden spike”, in geological strata and oceanic sediments. The “golden spike” is a global environmental marker which shows distinct evidences of geological changes imprinted on the earth. Environmental scientists and others, however, looked to climate change, water pollution, land degradation, factory wastes, greenhouse gases emission, etc. – as all results of human activities – for the indicators of the Anthropocene.

That being said, some contend the starting date of the Anthropocene to be the rise of the agricultural revolution with the cultivation of lands, construction of dams and irrigation systems and the domestication of animals; some, like Paul Crutzen himself, prefer the date to the industrial revolution, specifically with the invention of the steam engine in 1780s. Others put the starting date to 1945 and after, which they call the “Great Acceleration,” after the first tests of nuclear bombs and uses of new advanced technologies.

The evidence for the geological transition and the dating of the new epoch seems more to be where and what data you are looking, though. As already mentioned, scientists and environmentalists are convinced with substantial evidences of natural phenomena and large-scale human-induced destructions and pollution seen around the world, whereas geologists look for stratigraphic evidences, such as rock layers, ice cores and marine sediments. Moreover, it must be noted that to term the starting date for a new geological epoch, in the lack of comparable and distinctive geohistorical evidence or some kind of it, to a single specific date will always prompt contentions. However, having observed and considered all data and evidences, we can see that we are now in a different and distinct era in the earth’s history.

Footprints of the ‘Anthropos’

In fact, scientists, environmentalists and activists have found substantial evidences or indicators that point to the planetary magnitude of human impacts on the earth systems. Combustion of fossil fuels such as coals, gas, and oil, factories wastes, overuse of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, agribusiness, genetically modified crops and disposal plastics are accelerating damages and pollution to the natural course, humans, the environment and biosphere. 

There is almost no corner of the earth which has not been marked or affected by human activities. The global effects of the Anthropocene, the footprints of the anthropos are detectable, palpable and present everywhere. Ocean acidification, deforestation, habitats destruction, loss of biodiversity and extinction of species, geomorphological changes and alterations due to population migration, urbanization, and land-uses, depletion of the atmosphere and ozone layer, plastics wastes, pollution of air, water, and land, and global warming are major indicators of human-induced activities and their disparaging effects. Unusual temperature changes, frequent droughts, storms, wildfires, floods and rising sea levels are manifestations of anthropogenic climate change and global warming.

Anthropocene and Ecological Crisis Issues The Anthropocene is an urgent geopolitical and socioecological issue. It is a global concern that both alarms, arouses and calls individual observers as well as international communities and governments to actions and theorizing. And it has been addressed and discussed broadly in many disciplines (environmental, political, scientific, and philosophical) of discourses, though how effectively and efficiently it is handled and resolved is still to be seen.

Of course, the tasks to addressing these environmental challenges would require no small tasks, projects and efforts. But there are ecological experts, like Jane Goodall, who are positive that things can be changed, especially with full participation of young enthusiasts and proper use of social media, scientific knowledge and technology. No deny, corporate businesses, nongovernment organizations, tech companies and government institutions play huge roles in tackling and solving these challenges. Sustainable developments and renewable energy, for example, are some alternatives available right now to reduce carbon emission, exploitation of natural resources, and pollution of the human environment. But individual participation is highly encouraged and promoted as well. Wise counsels have told us that everyone matters and all must take action – consider the cumulative effects of individual works – to build a better world.

Dr. Jane Goodall believes that “three interrelated challenges” – poverty, unsustainable consumerist lifestyle, and human population growth, need to be all tackled if we are going to engage the challenges of the Anthropocene. A desperately poor community in a rural area likely will cut all the trees either for growing food (agriculture, plantation) or making fuels (firewood, coals). The urban poor will take almost everything – food, drinks, and clothes – irrespective of how they are made or what they are made of. The “unsustainable lifestyle of consumer society”, or surplus lifestyle and overconsumption, both exploits and makes waste of foods, energies, resources and earth materials. Overpopulation often results and occurs in colonization of spaces and landscapes, deforestation, robbing native inhabitants, and exploitation of other living communities.

Dr. Jane suggested that when addressing the ecological crises, individuals should act locally first and then think globally, instead of the oft-said ‘Think globally; act locally.’ For when people think globally first, they see that the task is too huge and the scope too vast that they become “helpless”.

Quoting Dr. Jane:

“In the face of such huge global problems, what can one person do? It is so important for us to realize that if each of us tries to leave as light an ecological  footprint as possible, the cumulative effect will lead to huge change.”

“…We all need to think about the consequences of the life choices we make each day. What do we buy, what do we wear, what do we eat, how is it made, is it from the environment, is there cruelty to animals or cruelty to children? And make choices thinking not only about how is this good for me now, but also how will this affect future generations. In other words, we need to do our part in the decisions we make, in our hearts and in our heads.”

At the same time, we recognize that the challenges we face today are addressed more effectively if corporate bodies and government institutions take seriously about the environmental care and the jobs of resolving ecological crises into their hands. For corporate businesses and government institutions have the tools, methods, and capacities to do larger-scale technological advances and ecological reforms than individual undertakings. Moreover, since it is not possible, and even absurd, to cut all modern industries and factories, and go back to pre-industrial societies model, technologies should be accelerated and advanced to the point that greenhouse gas emission and other destructive agents are reduced and bypassed. Nature should also be given time and chances to recover to maintain optimal life. Here, accelerating technologies and nature protection will seem incongruous, but the caretakers must plan and come up with methods for minimum impact on nature with long-term sustainability. 

Eco-sophies & Interbeing

The old rationalistic, materialistic thinking about man and nature as two separate, two opposing, entities and the irrational acts of man, have, whether by deliberate-conscious or not, made man to think of nature as  the external ‘other’, that some other thing that need to be conquered, subdued, controlled, managed and used for profit and pleasure. Some people even pillaged their ‘sacred’ texts and based their power-monger desires as ground of justification for their exploitation of the nature and the living communities in it. Anthropocentric thinking, or “human-centeredness” thinking – with its selfish nature, desire, greed and suspicion – has made humans at the focal point in all thinking and privileges, and thus antagonized nonhuman beings and entities. Self-preservation, not will-to-power, is a basic anthropocentric thinking, but the time has come that we need to sober up from the egoistic anthropocentric thinking and start thinking beyond merely-human-interests.

From Leopold’s land ethics, to Schweitzer‘s ‘reverence for life’, from Naess’ deep ecology, and Lovelock’s Gaia theory, to Peter Singer’s animal liberation, ecologists, scientists and eco-sophers have developed important concepts and ideas on the protection, preservation, care, understanding and ‘reverence’ of nature and the lives that inhabit it, and inform us new ways of thinking. What these ethical reasoning, moral standing and eco-thinking encourage us is to think beyond human thinking; or, ‘more-than-humans’ thinking. Or, ‘relational thinking,’ in Naess’ case. While even thinking to think beyond human thinking is all too human, it encourages us humans to think from nonhuman beings’ perspectives and thus consider and care about their lives too.

Predated by centuries, Indigenous philosophy and Eastern spirituality can shed light on the concepts and guidelines of modern environmental philosophy and ethics. In fact, basic tenets of the modern eco-sophies and eco-humanisms are all anticipated and even manifested already in the wisdoms of Indigenous peoples and Eastern religions, especially Zen Buddhism. These ways of thinking treated all sentient beings with care and respect, and, in a holistic sense, identified themselves with the nature as one interconnected and interdependent. This kind of revolutionized thinking is what we need in order to cure the ills we human beings have impacted upon the planet earth. Nature is not the separated other, and nonhuman beings are not our enemies. The earth, nature, nonliving entities and living organisms (including humans) are all interconnected and interdependent, and intersymbiotic relationships are crucial for survival of the species and existence of life on earth.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s concept of ‘interbeing’ is one example that explains the interconnectedness and interdependence of everything on earth. As the Zen master writes in The Heart of Understanding, for us to think about a paper, say, one must think and be able to see the interconnectedness of the paper with cloud and sunshine.

               “Without a cloud, there will be no rain; without rain, the trees cannot grow; and without tress, we cannot make paper. The cloud is essential for the paper to exist. If  the cloud is not here the sheet of paper cannot be here either. So we can say that the cloud and the paper inter-are….If we look into this sheet of paper even more deeply, we can see the sunshine in it. If the sunshine is not there, the forest cannot grow. In fact, nothing can grow. Even we cannot grow without sunshine. And so we know  that the sunshine is also in this sheet of paper. The paper and the sunshine inter-are”  (Thich Nhat Hanh, 1988: 3).

In the same way, we cannot forever divorce ourselves from nature. (We have been for too long divorced from nature). Without the natural world, we cannot exist. Without the nonhuman beings, animate and inanimate, we cannot simply be. For as Thay, as the Zen master has been dearly called, wrote: To be is to ‘interbe’.

While we maintain that human beings are “the most intelligent creatures that walk on the earth” (although many biologists and philosophers would disagree with this assertion), we need to see the earth system, as in Lovelock, as a large, intelligent living system with its own inherent worth and function. At the same time, we need to reject anti-humanism and the nihilistic ideas of Posthumanism that so antagonized human beings and the human condition. With the capacity to care, love, sympathize and think, we can develop and cultivate our regenerative human cultures and sustainable environments. We need to take the first step of awareness, conviction, and action for regenerative human cultures and ecological sustainability. The awareness that the earth really is damaging and we are the responsible perpetrators that have inflicted it with our endless extraction and exploitation of its resources, and that we need to take care of the planet earth. We need to have a conviction that we can make change, and develop aesthetic interests and willingness to protect the earth. And we need to take action, in our means and capacities, in promoting earth care and sharing our knowledge and conviction with others.

Since we hold that human beings are mainly responsible for the massive destructions of life, habitats, ecosystems and earth systems on this planet, the same human beings can work to reduce and minimize its destructive effects and forces. The concept of interbeing is not simply a neo-pagan New Age philosophy, as some want to call it; but it’s a way of thinking and a way of being (interbeing). The Gaia paradigm, despite vicious attacks from Darwinian fundamentalists, is not without scientific values either. It’s that the earth’s biotic and abiotic environments are adversely affected by humans and human-induced activities that the whole system is now collapsing. Natural disasters, such as famines, droughts, storms, floods, wildfire, etc. are the imminent results. In the sense of Lovelock, the earth is fighting back for the unbalanced, unfair treatment inflicted upon ‘her’ – thus, the ‘revenge of Gaia.’

From a brighter perspective, there are people, like Jane Goodall, who believe that humans and nature can still live in harmony and that given a chance and enough time, nature can recover and triumph. There are also some people who developed pessimistic, yet cautionary, views and said that the destructive human impacts on the earth is irreversible; that our next human generations might never know what a green environment is; or that the next earth history might be a ‘world without us’ humans. For some scientists and thinkers, like Lovelock the originator of the Gaia theory, sustainable developments which use low-technology under the green umbrella are not adequate anymore; what is needed rather, Lovelock said, is “sustainable retreat;” to develop and use high-tech solutions with low impact on the environment and the planet. Moreover, green topics should be more about ecological, than economical; and more about aesthetic spirituality, than egoistic materiality. The challenges are there. The proposed solutions are laid there. Earth care in the Anthropocene is more urgent and crucial now than ever.

A nice gift from Free Thinking Team. Excellent documentary, excellent narration

Works Cited Acknowledgements

  1. For quotes of Jane Goodall, see Zan Boag (February 12, 2017). Divorced from nature: interview with Jane Goodall. On New Philosopher at http://www.newphilosopher.com/articles/divorced-from-nature/
  2. The concept of interbeing is found in the third chapter of Thich Nhat Hanh (1988). The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press.
  3. An article on the Anthropocene topic – Ian Johnston (August 29, 2016). Anthropocene: Planet earth has entered new epoch, experts say. On Independent at http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/anthropocene-epoch-new-planet-earth-man-made-what-is-it-a7215116.html
feature image: grist.org
Gin Suan Tung

Gin Suan Tung

Gin Suan Tung is a teacher and educator from Kalaymyo, Myanmar. He is interested in philosophy, science, history and theory.
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