The deliberations of two international congresses being held this week are of sustained interest to us here at New City Commons. The first is the set of climate talks in Paris known as COP21; the second is the historic International Summit on Human Gene Editing convened by the scientific academies of the U.S., U.K., and China in Washington, D.C. Each, in its own way, represents an attempt to reimagine ethics in the Anthropocene—the Age of Man.
In this week’s briefing, we introduce this term and share some interesting commentary on COP21.
First, a word on the word itself: where did it come from, and what does it mean? The term Anthropocene came to prominence in geological studies nearly fifteen years ago, in a six-paragraph essay published in Nature by Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen. In that essay, Crutzen claimed that it was “appropriate,” given the scope of humanity’s global footprint, to describe the current epoch in Earth’s history as the Age of Man. Consider: human activity has fundamentally transformed between a third and a half of the planet’s land surface; many of the earth’s major rivers have been dammed, diverted, or altered in some fundamental way; humans make use of more than half of the world’s freshwater runoff; and, perhaps most importantly, “energy use has grown 16-fold during the 20th century, causing 160 million tonnes of atmospheric sulphur dioxide emissions per year.”
These facts, combined with what Crutzen calls the “great acceleration” of global population rates, make clear that “we are taking control of Nature’s realm, from climate to DNA.” “It’s no longer us against ‘nature,’” Crutzen and Christian Schwägel argue in a 2011 piece for Yale’s Environment 360 magazine; rather, “it’s we who decide what nature is and what it will be.” The plausibility of this claim led the Economist to publish a characteristically concise and lucid article in 2011, simply titled “Welcome to the Anthropocene.”
The moral force behind the push to adopt this admittedly clunky, technical geological term is the emphasis it places upon human responsibility. As Jedediah Purdy puts it first in an essay titled “Anthropocene Fever” (and develops in his recently published book, After Nature): “The question is no longer how to preserve a wild world from human intrusion; it is what shape we will give to a world we can’t help changing.” As Purdy and others have noted, during the Holocene (the geological epoch that began around twelve thousand years ago), human beings were simply one of many species sharing a finite planet—a planet that comes with built-in limitations and constraints. The ethical task in such a world is to discern natural limits and figure out how to live within them. Within the Anthropocene, however, the line between the natural and the artificial is not blurred, but removed altogether. In this age, the planet’s limitations and constraints are no longer simply built-in—they are, in some important sense, built. This fundamentally alters the shape of ethics.
The logic of the COP21 talks in Paris, for example, begins not with terrestrial limits but with human aspirations. We begin with a debate about what we are capable of, and trust that, when aggregated, these efforts will suffice to meet the challenge. This is policy as pledge drive, or as John Cassidy has called it, a “potluck” strategy—“each country brings what it can.” The basic question posed in Paris is not “what must be done to avoid catastrophe?” but rather, “what sort of common framework can be established so that we (as a whole) can do anything?”
Whatever its merits prove to be, conservationists and others are right to notice that this strategic shift is more than mere rhetoric. It signals a preference for the logic of world-making rather than world-preserving. In the Anthropocene, no part of the physical world remains in some pristine, primordial state, outside of the realm of human influence—and this means that the best we can hope for is adherence to a moral imperative to refashion the world in accordance with our best ethical intuitions. And yet, as Purdy has noticed, the challenge of ethics in the Age of Man is the likelihood of paralysis in the face of overwhelming complexity—as he puts it, the capacity “to think about being able to do nothing about everything.”