Monday, May 11, 2015

Surviving in the Anthropocene

As I mentioned in my last post, and in a few previous ones, I have been reflecting on philosopher Dale Jamieson's masterful analysis of the Climate Change dilemma in his Reason in a Dark Time. Rather than review the lengthy argument of the book--which examines the historical, economic, ethical, scientific, and political complexities of addressing the climate issue over the past 30 years--I want to reflect on Jamieson's concluding thoughts, beginning with the notion that "our lives [are] worth living ... in accordance with our values." He calls those values "green virtues", and notes that while they "are not an algorithm for solving the problems of the Anthropocene, [...] they can provide guidance for living gracefully in a changing world while helping to restore in us a sense of agency." (p. 200) In short, we--and our descendants, forever--will have to live with the enormous challenges consequent to Climate Change, but we can still act meaningfully, ethically, with purpose.

How? Jamieson proposes a seven-fold list of policy priorities that we humans, and our governments, and perhaps the UNFCCC super-government can usefully pursue to at least limit the most dire consequences of the changes we have wrought.  Here they are:

  • Include climate adaptation in the plans for economic development, particularly in the poorer developing nations, who stand to be the greatest victims, and the most blameless--and the most in need of funds for this purpose from the wealthy--and most culpable--nations;
  • encourage the development of carbon sinks, most particularly tropical forests (but not the sci-fi-like geo-engineering schemes hubristicly proposed in some quarters);
  • price energy at its true cost;
  • tax carbon and/or set up working global carbon exchanges with serious limits on total allowances;
  • force adoption of existing technologies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions, rather than wait for the vagaries of market adoption;
  • expand research, particularly primary scientific research, in the complex fields that relate to climate; and finally
  •  plan to live in the Anthropocene: that is, understand how our relationship to nature has changed, how little of 'nature' rests outside human influence, and thus what an enormous responsibility we have to this no-longer-natural environment we have irrevocably altered.
While Jamieson offers further conclusions, and leaves much to discuss in arriving at these prescriptions, I want to look more closely at that last Big Idea: to embrace the Anthropocene. This notion was apparently coined about 15 years ago by Noble-laureate chemist and climate scientist Paul Crutzen, who updates and discusses his intentions in this more recent article from Yale University's journal Environment360. Crutzen asserts that by leaving aside anachronistic notions of nature independent of us humans, by acknowledging our responsibility in creating our environment, we can better learn to take our stewardship of the earth more seriously, in three specific ways. 1) We can abandon what he calls "hyper-consumption" in favor of modest, need-centered growth. 2) We can direct scientific research toward meeting the "needs of the poorest" and creating what he calls a "durable bio-economy." And finally, 3) we can develop our culture to support what he calls, quoting Alexander von Humboldt, a "world organism," a mutually sustaining and non-competitive world system for keeping our anthropogenic environment in balance.

I'm still learning to think in terms of the Anthropocene, with its enormous implications, and perhaps you are too. I want to cite one recent discussion, in the Left journal Jacobin, whose author, Andreas Malm, takes Crutzen and others to task for naturalizing the current deplorable state of the earth and its climate by attributing this condition to 'us', to the 'natural' fact of human preponderance, which is how he understands the term 'Anthropocene.' It's not 'us,' Malm insists--it's the capitalist world system and its tiny cadre of super-beneficiaries in the .1% who are wrecking our environment and refuse to stop. He cites the analysis of Naomi Klein in This Changes Everything to underscore his point--and he has a point. The system of exploitation we live in is not inevitable--though it can surely be understood as a, or rather as the human project. But, as Crutzen doesn't say, we will never achieve the responsible stewardship thrust upon us in the Anthropocene until we tame the impulse for hyper-growth, hyper-consumption, profit at all costs. The conceptualization of the Anthropocene--despite Malm's critique--is not the problem; rather, its domination by irresponsible profit-seeking corporations is, and we will never fulfill Crutzen's vision, or Jamieson's, of a responsible Anthropocene until we free ourselves from the domination of ExxonMobil and Shell, Citibank, Goldman Sachs, and all the rest.

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