Talking about the Anthropocene

Talking about the Anthropocene

Lemon Tree in Sun Porch WIndow
Lemon Tree in Sun Porch Window

The political chaos we’re facing has me thinking about the anthropocene. Well, to be fair, almost everything these days has me thinking about the anthropocene, and climate change, and the ways we keep talking about changing our lives and lifestyles but no one actually does.

But what is the anthropocene? And why is the term itself causing such consternation? The anthropocene is a term proposed in 2008 and accepted in 2016 by the Stratigraphy Commission of the Geological Society of London, the folks who set the definitions of geologic eras, to describe the era that comes after the Holocene. We have all been living in the Holocene, the approximately 12,000 year period since the last Ice Age. What’s different about the Anthropocene is the “anthro” in the name, the Anthropocene is the age of humans, and denotes that geologic strata are now marked by human action — from industrial chemical pollution, to pollen from monoculture cropping, to mass extinctions and rising sea levels and atmospheric temperatures, there is no place left on earth untouched by human activity. So much so, that markers of all these activities are now evident in the geologic strata itself.

As one might expect, this idea has proved deeply unsettling on a number of levels. Jeremiah Purdy, law professor at Duke, notes in the introduction to his recent book: After Nature: Politics for the Anthropocene, that part of this is a result of what he terms the third in a series of unsettling ideaological revolutions:

The Anthropocene marks the last of three revolutions. Three kinds of order once thought to be natural and self-sustaining have shown themselves to be artificial, fragile, and potentially self-immolating. The first to fall was politics: long seen as part of divine design, with kings serving as the human equivalent of lions in the desert and eagles in the sky, politics proved instead a dangerous but inescapable form of architecture — a blueprint for peaceful coexistence, built with crooked materials. Second came economics: once presented as a gift of providence or an outgrowth of human nature, economic life, like politics, turned out to be a deliberate and artificial achievement, and vulnerable to its own kinds of crises. Now, in the Anthropocene, we have to add nature itself to the list of things that are not natural. In every respect, the world we inhabit will henceforth be the world we have made. This is not reassuring: politics, economics, and ecology are all in near-perpetual crisis.

I live on the edge of some of the wildest country in the lower 48 – the Beartooth Absaroka Wilderness area stretches all down the east side of the Paradise Valley and then east nearly to Cody, Wyoming. Flying over it on the way to Denver, it’s as big as some of our smaller East Coast states. And then there’s Yellowstone, and the Custer-Gallatin National Forest to the West, an area we’re trying to get wilderness designation for as well. These are large tracts of roadless country, places as specified by the 1964 Wilderness Act, that most poetic of laws,  “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.”

That wild country exists, and will continue to require our vigilance in its defense is not in question, although you’d hardly know it from the vigorous debate surrounding the term Anthropocene. Since William Cronon’s 1995 essay “The Trouble with Wilderness” which asks us to rethink the intellectual category of “wilderness” the American nature writing community has been riven by the fear that acknowledging the Anthropocene means giving up on the possibility of wild country and the experiences we have all so cherished there. I’d argue that this anxiety stems from a mistaken conflation of the intellectual idea “wilderness” with the topos that is actual wild country.

The hard truth is, that if wild country cannot continue to exist without humans willing to defend it from other, more rapacious humans, then wilderness is indeed a human construct. This is not to say that it is not real, or that as a place untrammeled by man it’s not still a place where humans can feel the fragility of their own lives — get yourself stuck on an open scree field during a lightning storm, or surprise a sow grizzly with cubs, or simply forget your rain gear and get drenched too far from the safety of your car at the trailhead and you’ll discover quickly enough how untrammeled and wild the wild country actually is. But it does mean that because wild country only exists where we have set it aside, and only continues to exist because some of us fight for it, that wild country, and wilderness as an category we use to designate such country, is a human idea, a human construct.

This is a double-edged sword. Some are using the notion of the Anthropocene to argue that since nothing is actually natural, then there’s no need to preserve any of it, that we should develop and use it all. Some are using the concept in a kind of triumphalist way — See, they seem to be saying, Man has finally conquered nature! This group seems particularly enamored of technology as a means of solving the problems of global warming, peak oil, and ubiquitous pollution that we’re facing.

For me, the notion of the Anthropocene offers hope for breaking down the binary thinking that has always pitted the domestic and the wild as being in opposition to one another, as cancelling one another out. It took me decades to move to someplace as wild as Montana, and what’s the first thing I did? I built a garden. I grew up on farms and in suburban developments right on the edge of small patches of wild country — woods and ravines, ponds and creeks, places where a kid could escape from the prying eyes of adults and escape into a world of trees and sticks and mud and little things we built for ourselves. In my teens and early twenties, I led trips and did field work in the canoe wilderness on the Minnesota-Canada border, a country where you could travel into backcountry so deep that you were days from a road, much less a town. However, I have to admit that perhaps 90% of my experience in the wild places of the West is in what we call the front country — those first five miles or so on either side of a wilderness area boundary that take the brunt of human interaction.

In graduate school I remember my shock when confronted with the idea that the pastoral, agriculture in particular, was in some sort of combat with the wild. My experience had always been that the two existed in much more of a spectrum, particularly when contrasted with urban or suburban life. Farmers and ranchers, even those industrial farmers like the ones surrounding my grandmother’s farm in Illinois, were in closer contact with the natural world than say, the IT professionals I worked with in California for so long, who lived in landscaped developments and commuted to the Cisco “campus” where they spent long days in their cubicles. However, it is true that the application of industrial modes of production to agriculture, the vast fields of monocropped corn or soybeans or cotton, and the horror that is our industrial meat industry, with it’s huge barns filled with chickens or pigs of cattle living in the toxic fumes of their own waste, these things are indeed antithetical to both our ideas of the natural and the wild. However, I’d find myself hard-pressed to conceive of industrial agriculture as a domestic activity at all, certainly not one that is in conflict with the wild. The industrial mindset that commodifies the natural world by monoculture and confinement agriculture is a threat to any honest agricultural model as much as it’s a threat to the wild.

While it’s true that there is still a deep divide in the West over land use, as acted out just last year by the standoff at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, and while there are bad ranchers just like there are irresponsible ski area owners, each of whom ruin wild country in their own ways, it seems to me that if we can break down the idea that wilderness is the only marker of freedom, if we can accommodate the idea of the domestic on a much larger scale, we can begin to formulate an ethic of care that will help us protect these wild places we so love.

Also published on Medium.

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