The term anthropocene (from gr.: anthropo – meaning human, and -cene, meaning new) has been suggested by the Nobel Prize winning chemist, Paul Crutzen, and later embraced by certain fields of both hard and soft sciences to designate our current geological epoch. For the first time in the planet’s history, humans drive major changes in Earth’s eco-systems, climate and biogeography. This article is an attempt to discuss the anthropocene in the context of ideas in history.
Text and photo: Peter A. Christensen
When did the anthropocene begin? Some argue that it began with the Industrial Revolution, marking the start of processes of accelerating CO2 emissions, resource exploitation, production, population growth and power-hungry technologies, to name but a few. Following that view, the Capitalocene has been suggested as a better term than the Anthropocene, pointing to the fact that current predicaments have their origin in Western, capitalist societies. Others place the origin of the anthropocene in the Neo-lithic around 10000 BC., where the rise of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, began substituting hunting and gathering as man’s primary way of life.
The British anthropologist Hugh Brody has written extensively about the fundamental difference in mind-set between the hunter and the farmer. His argument goes that the hunter-gatherer lifestyle is fundamentally linked to Nature and natural cycles, whereas to the farmer, Nature is endowed with antagonistic qualities. Nature, to this mindset, is an enemy encroaching on crops and threatening life-stocks, fundamentally conflicting with the interests of man and thus must be conquered, controlled and dominated.
Even though hunter-gatherers are often nomadic, Brody sees farmers as the true nomads, ever hungry for expansion, and now covering most farmable land throughout the planet, leaving little pockets for hunter-gatherers high in the Arctic and deep in the Amazon. To Brody, this process of expansion has also been one of alienation from an essential bond between man and Nature.
Perhaps here it is worth to look at some possible definitions of nature and culture, both originating from Latin. Nature is linked to the past participle of the verb nasci – to be born. It is often used to refer to that inside the human, which is given our inner nature. Comparably, nature is used to designate parts of the world that exist independently and prior to human alteration or modification. As such, one definition of nature is that which just is, encompassing the whole system of the existence, forces, life-forms and events of physical life that are not controlled by man. However, let us dispel one notion once and for all: nature is a category in our minds, not an objective reality. The objective reality would be the multitude of eagles and orcas, spiders and bees, oaks and pines, mountains and seas, miniscule molecules and the moon, orbiting it all. We often talk about saving nature for Nature’s sake, not realizing that nature is not a being with God-like features, terrible or benevolent. Nature is indifferent. We should save it for our own sake, because after all, we are part of it and depend upon it.
Culture, on the other hand, is linked to the Latin verb colere, meaning to inhabit and to till. Culture, then, signifies the active creation by man, as in agriculture, but is also linked to cultus, worship and refinement. Culture is the sphere of existence where men live, as opposed to nature, inhabited by other forms of life. Nature and culture, then, are conceptual opposites. A characteristic of the anthropocene is that it marks then end of nature as that which comes by itself; the pure and untouched. Culture, man’s activities, encompasses nature, and mark the end of it.
Regardless of whether we accept Brody’s negative interpretation of agriculture or not, the anthropocene is perhaps ultimately the consequence of values. The French philosopher Louis Dumont, inspiring a super-charged structuralist approach to the nature::culture dichotomy, suggests that concepts or ideas are not only acquiring meaning from their position within the total system of ideas, but are in fact also ordered in hierarchies of values. Ideas then, are also values. For instance, nature is an idea that is encompassed by culture to the industrialist mind; progress, growth, expansion, exploitation etc. are then justified in that man, belonging to culture, is above nature, in the hierarchy of values. Brody would say that for a hunter-gatherer, that order would be reversed.
Life in the anthropocene begs the reversal of this hierarchy. Although mankind has achieved many goals undreamt of at the onset of the Industrial Revolution, the price has been high. Continuing current trends of accelerating change will lead to a collapse of human civilization as we know it, according to the prominent multi-disciplinary scientist Jared Diamond, to name but one of many. Ultimately, disregarding conceptual opposites, culture is subordinated to nature, although currently subordinating it. As anyone will know, there is an ongoing debate about how to develop sustainable ways to prolong human life on Earth. The concept of sustainability presents us with conflicting demands, or what the anthropologist and biologist Gregory Bateson has called a double-bind. If we reverse current trends of dirty energy use, economic growth, consumption and so on, it will have major consequences for all societies. Rich societies will have to give up on many privileges, and poor societies will struggle to eradicate poverty. On the other hand, if we let things continue along the current trajectory, even more dire consequences will follow.
During the past centuries, in addition to the Industrial Revolution, many societies have undergone many other revolutions: political, scientific, secular, gender-related and social. Monumental change in our conceptual ordering of the world is possible, and that is a lesson in hoping for the impossible. In our lifetimes, we need a revolution of our tenuous bond with nature. As academics, we have a privileged position to help spur this revolution. Technological solutions related to cleaner energy use are developing – if you are an engineer that may be where your future work should lie. For economists, a worthwhile study could be considering what a market may look like in a shrinking economy with fewer and fewer goods to exchange and distribute. Maybe such a situation is not as dire as it may appear to privileged societies like those in Scandinavia. Surely, we can come up with a better model of man than that of the maximizing individual driven by material accumulation. For biologists – well, I hardly need to suggest their involvement, except perhaps in becoming better at translating their findings to narratives that the general public can relate to. This, I think, is an endeavor that other fields of study could also pursue. For students of the humanities and social sciences, perhaps we can envision a closer cooperation with the natural sciences to reestablish links between culture and nature under the headline of the Anthropocene: how do we envision life in this new era and creating an equilibrium between an independent, but vanishing, nature and an interdependent, but destructive, culture? This is a challenge that encompasses all academic disciplines. For too long, I fear, has the conceptual distinction between nature and culture been allowed to dominate the way we organize our universities.
Finally, in addition to being students, we are also human beings. Soon we will become parents of a new generation, and some already have. Let us not fail in letting the next generation form a bond with nature. This must of course be integrated much more fully into our social institutions like kinder gardens and schools, but it is also an opportunity for each and every one of us to help raise a more conscientious, aware and capable generation. With the overwhelming challenges facing mankind, it is hard to find cause for optimism. Taking a cynical standpoint and envisioning a total collapse may lead to just that. We must be decisive and bold, and nourish a naïve hope. Take a kid skiing or fishing, hiking or canoeing. Maybe we will find that there is still a hunter-gatherer deep within us. We cannot let the current trend of alienation from Nature continue, because how do we protect what we do not love, and how do we love, what we do not know?