A Good Anthropocene?

Competing Visions of Our Environmental Future

Human ingenuity has allowed the species to transcend every supposed ecological limit in the past, but will it be enough to surmount the challenges of a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene? There are many reasons to believe in the possibility of a “good Anthropocene,” says the opening panel of the 2015 Breakthrough Dialogue, but concerted political and social action – not techno-utopian thinking – is needed.

Mark Lynas, author of The God Species and Six Degrees, opened the discussion by pointing to humankind’s remarkable achievements in recent history. Globally, a demographic transition is underway in which birth rates are plummeting. More productive forms of agriculture use less land, allowing forests to regrow in the United States, Poland, and Vietnam. Western countries have seen peak consumption of various materials including steel, concrete, paper, and wood.

These trends give empirical weight to what Lynas’s belief in a good Anthropocene. Citing the opening passage of Charles Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities, Lynas emphasized that humans will ultimately decide what kind of planet they inhabit by actively “using science and technology as [their] most potent tools for first identifying and then solving problems.”

Encouraging as these decoupling trends are – whereby economic growth does not come at the expense of the environment – they might not be occurring fast enough to make a difference.

Clive Hamilton, an ethicist at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, argued that humans have already entered a frightening period in planetary history. There is no way to make the Anthropocene good, he says, only “less bad.”

“By the end of the century it will very likely be hotter than it has been for 15 million years,” he said. “In short, the Earth system is now operating in a different mode and nothing we can do now, even ending the burning of fossil fuels in short order, can get it to ‘bounce back’ to the Holocene.”

At one level, the concept of a good Anthropocene tends to mask the negative impacts we are currently experiencing, such as the California mega-drought. But at a deeper level, argues Hamilton, the concept is a theodicy, “founded on a belief in the ultimate benevolence of the whole, a goodness that in the end transcends and defeats the structural obstacles, sufferings, and moral lapses that seem to threaten it.”

The ecomodernist appeal to a “good Anthropocene” (sometime in the distant future), in turn, breeds complacency – best summed up by the phrases “everything happens for the best.”

Steve Fuller, a philosopher at the University of Warwick, challenged the notion that providence leads to passiveness:

“It’s not just about silent suffering, but perseverance in the face of resistance,” Fuller said. “One can believe that even though you’re faced with challenges in short-term, there will be gain in the longer term, and that is the spur to action.”

Radical political change is necessary, agreed Hamilton, who described his principal objection to An Ecomodernist Manifesto as its lack of discussion of present-day politics that impede action on global challenges like climate change.

“Obviously technological change is needed; everyone believes that,” he said. “[But in the manifesto] there’s no analysis of what the problem is. There’s no mention of fossil fuel lobby, dirty money, politics, denialism, and there’s no mention of Exxon and the Koch brothers.”

Lynas pushed back on this, arguing that climate change denialism is a political phenomenon that is partly a reaction to the capture of the climate change issue by the Left and the “insistence that only anti-capitalist approaches are viable solutions.”

While the fossil fuel lobby has played some role in raising skepticism, argued Lynas, in his 15-year involvement with climate negotiations, the biggest point of contention has been what kind of development pathways developing nations will take.

Across the globe, poor countries such as Bangladesh are choosing to build coal-fired power plants to move away from using wood, which destroys forests and causes indoor air pollution that kills millions annually. In the ecomodernist view, this is a good thing even if brings out more carbon dioxide emissions. Development involves accelerating poor countries further up the energy ladder, from using wood and dung, to coal, gas, and eventually zero-carbon sources like solar and nuclear.

“The hope is – and I don’t believe this is somehow predestined or designed – that we will be able to achieve enough of development to avert the worst impacts of climate change,” argued Lynas.

“My critique of the technofix is when technology substitutes for political change, which is necessary for bringing about that technological revolution,” replied Hamilton.

A good degree of change may need to come within environmental ranks first, countered Lynas, who pointed to environmentalists’ opposition to technologies such as nuclear power and genetically modified foods.

“Yes environmentalists make mistakes, for one, I think the opposition to GMOs has been a serious error,” said Hamilton. “I think the dangers of nuclear power have been seriously overblown, but to blame the environmental movement as opposed to the fossil fuel industry, doesn’t make any sense.”

From the tenor of the debate, the Anthropocene – whether defined as good or bad – is unlikely to be passive.

“An embrace of technology does not imply a passive techno-optimism or an ignorance of the policy changed needed,” said energy analyst Jesse Jenkins. “We have to leave behind in the discussion that anyone here looks at challenges ahead and says everything will be fine, leave it to fate.”

Read the transcript of Mark Lynas's presented remarks here.

Read the transcript of Clive Hamilton's presented remarks here.