In Search of Anthropocene Ethics
The current epoch, the Holocene, is about 11,700 years old – and a movement has been afoot for about the past sixteen years to declare that due to human behavior, we have entered a new epoch, called the Anthropocene. The idea is that modern time is not defined so much by the end of the last ice age, as it is defined by human impact on the planet’s environment, topography, geography, climate, etc.
To some folks, the whole concept of human impact on the environment might seem both obvious and shrug-worthy at the same time. We are the environment, after all, right? We are organisms on our planet, fighting for survival, and doing quite well at it, and that’s perfectly natural. But to any reasonable observer of the evidence, we are a mighty peculiar and unique organism, capable of massive destruction to the planetary ecosystem – and that’s where individual ethics come into the picture. We actually get to decide how much impact we have, and how negative it needs to be.
Our impact is not small, or incremental, or glacially slow – it is tremendous both in scope and swiftness. Data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii has shown that the current level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is somewhere around 400 parts per million. Before the industrial revolution the planet had a nice steady cycle of atmospheric carbon from anywhere between 200 and 280 parts per million, depending on whether there was an ice age or not, going back hundreds of thousands of years, without any real spikes – certainly nothing coming close to the current surge caused by human activity. We know this because we can study ancient ice bubbles and suck the air out of them. Dr. Charles Miller, a researcher specializing in this type of data says, “current [atmospheric] CO2 values are more than 100 ppm higher than at any time in the last one million years.” Now we can ask ourselves if this is a coincidence – or caused by some type of supernatural phenomena, ghosts maybe? Or we can admit that humans are the culprits due to the surge coinciding with carbon-based industry.
Passing the 400 mark reminds me that we are on an inexorable march to 450 ppm and much higher levels. These were the targets for ‘stabilization’ suggested not too long ago. The world is quickening the rate of accumulation of CO2, and has shown no signs of slowing this down. It should be a psychological tripwire for everyone.
– Dr. Michael Gunson – Project Scientist, Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 satellite mission – NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
That’s just carbon – the big problem that squashes all the other problems with all of its dire consequences. There’s also: (1) that whole thing where we are fishing the fish to death, (2) drastically reshaping the land to extract resources, (3) deciding we don’t really need trees anymore, (4) turning the ocean into a festering cesspool of plastic and sludge, (5) decimating coral reefs, (6)
permitting causing extinction rates up 1000 times the rate of pre-human levels, (7) poisoning and eradicating our pollinating species, (8) destroying the nitrogen cycle, (9) destroying the carbon cycle, (10) and we are trying to decide which entire country will entirely sink into the ocean first. That’s just to name ten, I’m sure there’s more deranged shit we are doing to permanently kill everything. We are getting very practiced at it, and practice makes perfect.
I said this was an article about ethics, so perhaps we can stop being pedants about the evidence and move on to what our obligations should be as a result of the evidence. We dislike personal responsibility to the community. At the furthest extremes, there are folks who think we are so insanely incapable of improving our actions and behaviors that we should just un-ironically choose to voluntarily go extinct. I can think of a few folks I hope join that movement, but it strikes me as an illustration of just how much we want to avoid acting ethically in light of our unique impact on the biosphere – perhaps a fear that we are incapable of being better humans.
This might be a perfectly reasonable fear. Despite a large body of ecological ethical philosophy that has popped up for the past 50 years, not much of it has been discussed beyond academia, certainly not in the type of national and international dialogue that is necessary for these ideas about human behavior to reach the individual, common person in a meaningful and considered manner. Science published “The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis” in 1967 and “The Tragedy of the Commons” in 1968, but serious efforts at making Anthropocene Ethics a part of the educational system, and a part of the way we are all brought up in the world have not taken hold or become anything close to learning-norms. We have been able to do things about other self-made crises. We have reined in nuclear proliferation, and fight an ongoing battle to keep it that way. We have reduced warfare and poverty in massive amounts. But we remain startlingly incapable of controlling our dominion over the environment. We need to be challenged with the following questions for ourselves:
Why is this not in the curriculum?
I know, due to my K-12 education, that the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell. But I never learned that melting permafrost in the polar regions is about to lead to worldwide catastrophe. I learned what a “past participle” means. But I never learned that the oceans are acidifying at a rate of 22 million tons per day. I also never learned that a very slight change in the PH levels of the oceans will kill all the oysters, lobsters, and shrimp in the sea. For some reason I learned in school that the state capitol of Delaware is Dover. But wasn’t it just a little bit more urgent for me to know that we destroy a Panama-sized chunk of the world’s forests each year?
We cannot advocate for sound policy or even guide our own individual ethical code in the right direction unless we have a basic awareness of the problem. We can keep leading insular lives while whistling past the graveyard, and that might feel nice for now, but at some point it becomes immoral to keep our eyes forcibly shut to the vast amounts of information just waiting to be shared in classrooms across the globe. There is a slogan among outdoorsmen: “Take only pictures, leave only footprints.” We are leaving a hellscape instead.
Why is this not something we discuss among ourselves?
I know what qualifies for water-cooler talk. My office is right next to the water cooler, and so I feel like an expert in the madness of social jabber these days. The hot topic right now is Donald Trump! Man, we can’t get enough of that silly goof’s antics. It’s like talking about how you need to mow the lawn while there’s asteroid falling from the sky – an amazing mismatch of our discussion priorities to the reality of the world. It’s not that we are just averse to discussing negative things. Donald Trump is a negative thing and we have veritable conversational orgies on that topic. So what is the real reason? My first suspicion is polarity. We all agree Trump is a disaster, but for some reason we don’t all agree on the urgency of ecological crisis. My second suspicion is efficacy. Even among those who agree there is an ecological crisis, there is a large percentage who find no reason to have faith in our coming together to do anything about it. So that needs addressing:
Why do we have no faith in ourselves to make a difference?
Here is an example. Despite 70% of Americans believing in climate change, only 6% think “humans can and will reduce” the problem. We have remarkably little faith in our fellow man, and this makes us less likely to change our own behavior. It’s like our own planetary diffusion of responsibility. Throw In The Towel Syndrome. Or maybe it’s this concept that since God is in charge of the climate anyway, we can just shrug and move on like it’s a background theological issue. Either way, if you care about children and lizards and birds and bees, isn’t there a moral imperative to act when crisis knocks at your door and threatens all of your legacy and progeny? Even for those of devout thinking, isn’t procrastination a sin?
Realism, not idealism:
I’m not some wild-eyed optimist. I think controlled catastrophe is just going to be a part of human existence and population growth. I think our effect on this pale blue dot will be pretty consequential and that we might not entirely recognize the world folks inherit from us a hundred or two hundred years from now. But I am a realist. I know that acting to solve a diffuse problem is not automatic or spontaneous, it’s sparked by something specific. I find myself in the unique position of hoping some minor but elucidative tipping point comes along right now in order to wake us all up from this trance and crystallize the stakes we face in the international consciousness. But failing that, staying zipped up about the problem in the meantime is not comforting to me. I’ll be making a conscious effort to be a giant pest. As annoying as a mosquito. Perhaps as annoying as a trillion mosquitoes. I do not think it is inevitable that we force a disastrous inheritance on our children. We can probably reduce that risk from inevitable to merely probable.
Image by Malinda Rathnayake