Anthropocene Opportunities

Humanity as a Global Force for Change

The old biology fable suggests that all life on Earth is like a protozoan in a petri dish, where it multiplies, quickly exceeds its resources, and dies off. Are humans doomed to the same fate? Some environmentalists say yes, in a world of finite resources, the walls of the petri dish are not far off. Ecomodernists, on the other hand, argue that humans are not the same as protozoan, and that they can overcome ecological problems. A concurrent session at the 2015 Breakthrough Dialogue explored how recent socio-ecological thinking provides a strong basis for local, regional, and even planetary opportunities to achieve a “good Anthropocene.”

What makes humans special is not simply the ability to use tools, or even their intelligence. These are traits that other species possess to some degree, too. Rather, as environmental scientist Erle Ellis argued, new research shows that it is social organization that make homo sapiens unique. Humans require other people in order to live. No other species shares resources with non-related individuals the way humans do: constantly and at a global scale.

To illustrate just how emergent human-dominated global transformation is, Ellis used the example of the conference lunch: “Where did our lunch come from today? We don’t know. Did we plan it? No. We didn’t have to do anything.”

The combination of this “ultra-sociality” and the ability to make choices gives humans an awareness of the petri dish that other species don’t share, argued ecologist Elena Bennett, a speaker at the session. Humans can recognize the boundaries of the ecosystems in which they operate, and choose to make changes (or not) to their behavior in response. Specifically, in the Anthropocene, humans can choose to change our social and economic systems so that we relieve pressure on natural systems.

“Our social nature plus ability to choose doesn’t change planetary boundaries, but it changes how quickly we get there and the size and direction of the steps we take,” said Bennett.

The upshot, of course, is that collective decisions require planning. Social organization is easier at smaller scales, pointed out Trevor Stevenson, who spent many years working with small tribal communities in the Amazon.

“We’re good at planning at tribal-scale, but what about the global scale?” he asked. “The larger the scale, the harder it is to make progress. And climate change requires that.”

“Homo sapien intelligence is social intelligence,” said Ellis, “but it’s emergent and not intentional at the scale at which it’s transforming the planet. You know what you’re doing today, but don’t know how it affects every other scale.”

This bears out in the real world. Big global attempts at establishing climate targets, like the one to convene this year in Paris, have largely failed to spur nations to act at the speed or scale necessary to effect significant change.

“President Obama and China’s climate change agreement was a small group of people acting,” pointed out Charles Mann, author of 1491. “One solution may be small groups, not big global Paris conferences.”

So is a top-down, global consensus needed to achieve a good Anthropocene? Not necessarily. In today’s interconnected world, good ideas can spread quickly and are copied endlessly. A decentralized process might be called “muddling through.” What could spur better or more effective “muddling” is by capitalizing on humankind’s collective desire for stories.

“What makes us different is that we’re story-oriented,” said Michael Burnham-Fink of Arizona State University. “The Anthropocene offers a new story against the old environmental one of humans trampling nature. I hope it gains traction.”

Collecting and sharing stories of what “good” is already underway in the Anthropocene is a new project led by Ellis and Bennett. Not yet launched, the goal is to create a blog and database of first-person stories that help us understand the motivations and values behind local and regional decisions.

“What’s been striking are how much people focus on social connection [as a motivation],” said Bennett. “Nature is almost a sideline story.”

Artists, musicians, and writers thus play an important role in the Anthropocene, argued Perrin Meyer, who explained how an environmentally friendly waste incinerator in Vienna was almost opposed because of NIMBY sentiment until Hundertwasser was brought in to design a beautiful architectural piece.

“Now the Viennese are proud of it,” he said. “Let’s look at other cultural ways of transmitting environmental solutions. Those are strong drivers for people.”