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We Are Living in the Anthropocene (bostonreview.net)
65 points by huihuiilly 25 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 40 comments



This topic is honey for political junkies, but there are reasonable geological arguments in favor of this, and many of the arguments opposed to it are political or ideological in nature (the "but man is natural" argument for instance).

Epochs are defined by noticeable, large-scale changes in rock strata in lots of places around the globe: glaciation, extinction events, increased volcanism, movement of the continents.

It's inarguable that humans have had an impact on the planet which will be measurable in the rock strata for millions of years to come. We've tweaked the isotopes found in the air (the atomic age), we've spiked the carbon content of the atmosphere in a very short period of time, and our dominance of the planet has brought the extinction of many, many other species. These are facts which stand regardless of personal politics.

Maybe the best non-political argument against an anthropocene is that it makes the Holocene epoch almost meaninglessly short. I dunno.

Anyway, adopting, or not, this new definition will have basically zero impact on anyone's life who isn't a geochronologist, but here we are.


The new definition is a conscious acknowledgement of our (humanity's) impact on our surroundings at a global scale.

It is good for us to be aware of this when we make our decisions, geochronologist or not.


>>These are facts which stand regardless of personal politics.

The problem is that a certain political party and its supporters are quite adept at arguing against or flat out ignoring those facts.

Unless we do something in 2020, this will be our undoing as a country.


I rarely come across a piece I disagree with so vehemently, at such a core level.

My conclusion is rather: The politics of the Anthropocene will be democratic and horrible.

This article has pushed me more firmly into the re-naturalization camp of politics, economics, and nature.

I enjoyed reading it though, nice to see someone actually thinking about these things and not just being touchy-feely.


Nature is no more or less "natural" than ever. Humans (and non-human animals!) have always and forever effected the ecosystem(s) they participate in. Sometimes in drastic ways.

It's true that we've increased the scale by an order of magnitude. or two. And it's probably true that it's not going to be pretty.

But it's no more or less "natural" than ever. "Natural" is probably not that useful a concept in general, it doesn't really mean anything in general, just like it doesn't mean anything on your food label.

> Both politics and the economy remain subject to persistent re-naturalization campaigns, whether from religious fundamentalists in politics or from market fundamentalists in economics.

Indeed, the whole concept of "the natural" is arguably always a right-wing and reactionary one. Used by people generally under a fantasy about what things _really_ "used to be" like, and that it was "always" that fantasy from forever until recently. I don't think it's a useful concept, I think it's downright dangerous when the fudamentalists start thinking they know what's "natural" (and thus, they assume, "good") and what isn't. But "sustainable" might be a useful concept for evaluation. As well as simply "good for humans", which is obviously subjective and a political question (a question of values and interests), instead of the feigned objectivity of "the natural". There's values and interests in the "re-naturalization" programs of fundamentalists and radical reactionaries too, despite their protestations to the contrary.

tldr: I think things are going to shit too, but thinking there's such a thing as 'the natural' and you know what it is, tends to make it worse.


The reductionism take seems to be fairly popular on HN in general, and it's kind of frustrating.

You can technically make that argument that humans are natural and therefore all of their impacts are also natural, but the fact remains that when shown a picture of a forest and a cityscape, everyone will instinctively know which one is more natural.

Nature is a useful concept. There are mental health benefits to being around nature[0], there are physical benefits of being around less pollution, there are future-of-the-human-race benefits to keeping things closer to the status quo than we're on pace to do with global climate change. We are changing our planet, in some ways positively and in some ways detrimentally, but it's pedantic to argue that this change is "natural".

[0]https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/study...


It's useful to have a concept like "nature" to help describe humans' impact on our environment, for sure.

I think it's probably less useful when trying to determine what humans should do or expressing a value judgement on human behavior. I'm not necessarily convinced that the "natural" state of something is better than some alternative that humans might come up with.

I don't think you need to invoke "nature" to make the points you mention above. We can talk about the mental health benefits of being outside, or among trees, or just in a peaceful environment in general. We can talk about reversing global warming in many more practical ways: humanitarian, economic, as a conservation issue, etc.

"Nature" is a catch-all term, and its useful in that context, but if interpreted as an inherent good it can be misused to support racism, pseudomedicine, and other really bad stuff. Since it's not necessary to make a case for the good stuff, and it can be a big part of the case for lots of bad stuff, it might be worth making the effort to be more precise.


The issue is that even a huge ecosystem like the Amazon, which we tend to consider "natural", has in fact been heavily shaped by humans.


I see your point... However, fortunately, we are still able to tell the difference between a city block and the Amazon rainforest. The distinction between the two is still meaningful.


Exactly. OR other animals!

But "the Amazon" is a good example, because people in European cultures also have a bad habit of considering "primitive" people to be _themselves_ "natural", with implications including: wherever and whatever way they live now (or when Europeans first contacted them) is where and how they have "always" lived, with no history of cultural change or migration; they have had no effect on the ecosystems they live in, which have also always been exactly as they are now.

Usually none of that is true.

Even ecosystems _without humans_ (and before human carbon-producing industry) _changed over time_.

Ones with humans have, as a trend, changed even more, true, but for _as long as there have been humans_, way before modern carbon-producing tech.

But again, this is not meant to be a feel-good "so what we are now doing is fine." Nope, we're totally fucking things up, at an accelerated rate and order of magnitude greater scale. But not necessarily a categorical/qualitative difference.


>But it's no more or less "natural" than ever. "Natural" is probably not that useful a concept in general, it doesn't really mean anything in general, just like it doesn't mean anything on your food label.

The term "Natural" is very useful, it purposely separates phenomena as resulting from human activity/technology from those that are the result of long standing, generally slow moving evolutionary/geological changes. As humans can introduce change rapidly into our environment as a result our ability to design, it makes a lot of sense to have a word to quickly describe the general high level cause of such quick change.


Remember when bacterias suddenly decided to artificially dump oxygen in the atmosphere on a global scale? Once toxic and artificial, now part of the natural air we breathe.

Anyway, Wittgenstein would probably dismiss the relevance of defining what's natural or artificial for the world is made of facts and not of things.


True, but the Great Oxygenation Event took an extremely long time to effect most species though, and there are certainly exceptions, but that's just it, they're exceptions. Humans are pretty much guaranteed to introduce change (we are innovators/technologists to our core.)


The link makes the natural vs mankind argument a little bit, but the notion of an Anthropocene doesn't really hinge on it.

For instance, other epochs are all named after natural things.

Regarding the general utility of the concept, it probably does at least occasionally make sense to distinguish between things that would happen without us and things that happen because of us. Doesn't mean we have to have an implied preference for the one or the other though.


the definition of natural means apart from humankind


That seems a little naive.

A baby is born and does things naturally.

The transition has to do with conscious control.


A better definition might be “apart from technology” as opposed to “apart from humans”.


The brief timespan of the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event does not get a "-cene", let's maybe wait a few million years and see what/who's left before branding ourselves anything but an extinction trigger.


Is this natural or artificial? Ever asked if a part of the rainbow is black or white?

Ultimately, let's not forget the name of the game: survival of the fittest. Unless free-will allows the choice to play another game ;)

Edit: apologies for my first downvoted comment, never meant to bring negative value to the discussion, especially on a topic that I'm glad to see here. Any improvement tips to share? :)


Humans are a part of nature. Everything we do and all our technology is based on the laws of nature. Therefore by definition, everything we do is natural. Animals in general try to create an environment that is suitable for them - whether it be be birds building a nest, or beavers building a dam. Humans are just really, really good at modifying their environment, but we are still a part of nature.


This is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis at work.

The way common language defines "nature" doesn't map well to reality and we end up developing contorted thoughts rather than re-evaluating the tools we use to think.

I like to contrast wild/raw stuff to artificial stuff, both of which are part of nature. Many things that are commonly considered "natural" are actually far from wild. Fields in the countryside? Artificial. Vegetables and farm animals? Artificial, even before GMO. Etc...

That being said, the way we've shaped the planet these last 200 years is radical, and possibly too radical for our own survival. Fossil fuel gave us an immense power and we probably didn't use it wisely. We'll see.


This line of reasoning appears frequently, but it misses the concept people are referring to when they say nature. Words are defined through their use, and no person would describe a parking lot or the inside of a building as a natural environment.

I think most people picture a place without human activity at all when they imagine a fully "natural" environment, like an island thats never had people on it. In this interpretation, people living naturally would cause their environment to deviate minimally from how it would be in their absence.

We are currently the direct cause of an ongoing mass extinction. We have yanked the surface of the planet so far from equilibrium that it may never return to its previous state. We are from being a part of nature.


I agree with this definition of words and their utility, but I also agree with GPs definition of nature. Now we have two running definitions and they contradict, thus a debate ensues. Political debates are often a matter of warring sides trying to establish their meaning of a word over the other's.

Thankfully, we also have a reasonable expectation in the use of words in that they map to something real. The broader the internal consistency of that word, the more 'authoritative' it should be - although, admittedly, this is just my opinion. (Politics will surely have some say about this.)

On defining nature, we have witnessed two definitions.

1. Not human.

2. All of the cosmos.

Those who appreciate the theory of evolution, I think, will have a harder time determining where the threshold between human and nature would be.


> Those who appreciate the theory of evolution, I think, will have a harder time determining where the threshold between human and nature would be.

All human terms are subjective that way. The universe is relative and probabilistic. Ideas like "nature" can be useful, but that's not to say the universe has a boolean type called "Nature" that actually exists in any objective sense.

Yet we keep having these sorts of debates year after year. Nothing exists in the ways that most people think them to be. I could care less whether something is "natural" if the conclusion has no use.


When was the planet at equilibrium? This is not a rhetorical question and I don't advocate for the destruction (or indifference to destruction) of the environment. But what is the natural state of the planet?


Equilibrium is a delusion of humans whose lives are too short, and whose brains are ill-equipped to comprehend the universal constant of change.


Nature is and never has been equilibrium. Nature is chaos.


I wholeheartedly agree. The concept of 'nature' in contrast to 'the human' seems to me something leftover from when we determined ourselves divine and separate from the rest. It's a word with arrogance deeply embedded in it.

The most useful meaning of this word is simply, "Not Human". But the human belongs to the natural.


What humans do stops being natural when it is no longer person-power but powered machines. That gives huge amounts of leverage.

You would consider a car, or a chainsaw natural? I wouldn't.


Some of us believe that artificial is merely of a subset of natural and saying that they are disjoint is a kind of naturalistic fallacy.


Humans can light the earth on fire with thousands of nuclear explosions. Almost nothing would survive. I’d say we’re well past natural. But your ways less extreme.


A long long time ago some organisms “polluted” the athmosphere with oxygen. It wasn’t a natural event in your opinion?


An asteroid can hit the earth and do the same thing. Is it not natural either?


And cyanobacteria transformed the entire atmosphere, to such a degree that almost everything else died out: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Oxygenation_Event


Humans are natural, and just another species among animals, that's true. But they have a very different responsibility since they completely control the rest of the ecosystem. Every grown-up human individual must be responsible and preserve the complex balance in the ecosystem


If everything we do is natural, why even have the word?


It is a leftover piece from our arrogant past when we considered our image a reflection of the divine.

It is now just a way to say, "not human". Unfortunately, the embedded arrogance is still perpetuated.


Is it possible to make a distinction between things that are designed, with intelligence, and things that have obtained their form through haphazard forces or the actions of organisms following their genetically pre-programmed behaviour? Even if "nature" vs "artificial" are not the right words for it?


Why do we have words for, oh, "phrenology" or "phlogiston"? Or, you know, um, "Caucasian".

We've got plenty of words whose referents aren't sound concepts.


Naturalness is a useful abstraction. It contrasts things we will interact with through discovery to those we interact with through design. It is a sound concept, it is just biased to be human-centric.




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