Wildfires, coral bleaching, plastic pollution and other events are happening at large scales and rates that are increasingly harmful to humans, animals and ecosystems. We live in an era of unprecedented human impact on our surroundings. This is described as the Anthropocene, which is “a new planetary era in which humans have become the dominant force shaping Earth’s bio-geophysical composition and processes.”
Whether it is groundwater depletion, deforestation, carbon emissions, plastic pollutions or nuclear waste, humans have created social systems and structures that have led to unsustainable use of resources and treatment of ecosystems. The dominant interactions with ecosystems are primarily linear (as opposed to circular) and exploitative (rather than regenerative), which has led to biodiversity loss, desertification and sea-level rise, just to name a few consequences.
There are two intentions in this article: one is to acknowledge that human activity is having an unprecedented and degrading impact on the planet on a global scale but in localised ways. And secondly, that there are diverse and different experiences of this.
In the dominant discourse, the term ‘nature’ is an English-language, Euro-centric concept situated in Cartesian dualism that describes the non-human environment we inhabit as something that is separate from the social world. Separating ‘nature’ from ‘culture’ is associated with “capitalist regimes” that allow “natural resources” to be commodified. In the social sciences, discussions have centred around going beyond ‘nature versus culture’, to frame conversations around the interactions between humans and their surroundings as mutually entangled.
We can no longer think and talk about ‘nature’ as an Other that exists outside of human activity, something that is ‘out there in the world’, that which is untouched by human processes. Humans have an unprecedented impact on environments and it’s time that we acknowledge it and act accordingly. The point of thinking through the Anthropocene is to acknowledge that humans and our social systems have created the problems, and as a result hold the responsibility and solutions, too.
The technology exists: we can generate hydrocarbon out of atmospheric CO2 to fuel cars and airplanes, we can generate batteries out of water, salt and magnesium to power small appliances such as torches, all of this on top of a growing renewable energy sector. Aside from the technical hurdles that come with the trade-off to transition to new technology — e.g. where to source the huge amount of metals and minerals required to transition to renewable energy — the big problem is the adoption of, investment in and commitment to the technology, which requires social and behavioural change.
The causes of environmental destruction lie in the social systems that we live in. The political, economic and social structures that exist enable the perpetuation of destructive processes. The way neoliberal institutions value profits and production over conservation and protection shifts the bias in an economy towards job creation and profit-making.
Shifting narratives and values
One of the conversations we should be having is about how local, regional, national and global societies create and understand value. After all, values vary across societies, histories and places. One region may be more or less economically valuable depending on the resources it holds, according to the dominant narrative, whereas other societies attribute religious, historical or ontological values to non-human entities that are manifested in relationships with environment.
For example, the Whanganui river is framed in multiple ways. Whanganui iwi (Maori kin groups) relate to it through their kin relationships with it which are manifested in the rituals, languages and laws that manifest the river system and its freshwater as a deity. This was acknowledged in a court case that juxtaposed Maori framings with legal framing proposed by the Crown and resulted in the court declaring the Whanganui river a legal being.
Continuing to allow currently dominant neoliberal economic processes to be the dominant narrative of value will continue to justify and enable unsustainable practices such as linear systems that extract finite resources without focussing on regenerative economic activity, while also disregarding other ways of being in the world and relating with and conceptualising environment.
We should not only measure the value of ecological systems based on their economic contributions. Thinking of the Great Barrier Reef as contributing $56 billion and 64,000 jobs to the Australian economy is an example of valuing environment in economic terms. Within this highly quantitative way of thinking, it is possible to try to offset the loss of economic gains and job creation by creating this somewhere else, which leads to a neglect of the biological and sociocultural value of the reef.
Instead, we should shift the narrative to the human and ecological value the Great Barrier Reef creates by providing biological diversity and how it enables human lived experiences and relationships with it. Acknowledging it as a World Heritage site was a step in this direction but seems to not be enough to protect coral reefs from the pollution and emissions from agriculture, mining and consumer goods that are directed into it, or the acidification that leads to coral bleaching.
The Great Barrier Reef is valuable for its economic contribution, but also for the biological diversity it offers. The NSW forests are valuable for the habitat they create for koalas and other species, whose existence is invaluable — biodiversity should not be measured in economic terms because it is fundamental to all life!
The valuation is also perpetuated when reports and white papers that inform policies and decision-making are biased towards financial gains, job creation and profits and therefore recreate the financial value system. We need more humanistic articulations to transform social systems which includes discussion about how GDP is calculated and how products, services and other contributions are valued in economies, such as adopting the Happiness Index, as Bhutan and New Zealand have. For a provocative critique of economic measurement and values see Mariana Mazzucato’s book: The Value of Everything.
‘Patches’ of the Anthropocene
The Anthropocene is not intended as a theory of everything that only allows for a singular view of the world, rather it encourages the acceptance of a plurality of ways of being in the world and thinking beyond profit, beyond humans and beyond ‘nature’.
The intention of thinking through the Anthropocene would not be to misplace other ways of being in and relating with the world but to facilitate discourse and a conceptual shift in the way we think about and enact our relationships with environment in a dominant narrative to then influence policy, economy and daily actions. It is also intended to open discussions of recognition of other conceptions, such as those of Indigenous groups, into more mainstream discourses.
The ‘patches’ of the Anthropocene may include Indigenous place names, oral histories and ways of knowing on terms defined by Indigenous peoples. Pachamama, Gaia, Naga, Tangaroa and Terra are examples of powers and forces that exist in the world. Thinking through these notions enables us to go beyond nature as the dominant and only way of thinking of the world as something outside of human activities, to instead think of the Anthropocene as the epoch of unprecedented human impact in terms of scale and diversity. As Donna Haraway argues: “it matters which stories tell stories, which concepts think concepts.”.
The Anthropocene is intended to explain global activities and their effects and not to replace or impose itself over local experiences. There are therefore diverse experiences that exist within but independently of the Anthropocene that tell other stories of ways of being in the world, and acknowledging them seriously is intended to avoid enforcing another Eurocentric concept onto them.
While plastic pollution and carbon emissions are global problems, there are localised social systems in place that contribute to local problems and solutions. Shifting the language, meaning, and conception to balance economic, social and ecological value would be a meaningful step towards redefining our relationships with environment and reshaping the social systems and lived experiences that patch together the Anthropocene.
Many thanks to Martin Espig for helping me to improve an earlier draft of this article through his critical commentary.