This article was originally published on WWT’s website.
Here’s an idea (which I’ve borrowed from the German philosopher, Heidegger): nature challenges us. History shows us that we humans have devised, over the centuries, more and more ingenious technologies, which have enabled us to live longer, more interesting lives. In doing so, we have challenged nature, transforming it to meet our own ends. But this process has challenged humans all the more, because, being the ones who reorder nature, we are responsible for it, changing its very existence. In changing nature, we change ourselves.
Heidegger died in the 1970s, so would not have come across the term ‘Anthropocene’. But I wonder what he would have made of scientists’ recent agreement that we find ourselves in a new geological time period, in which a single species has changed the very chemistry of the planet, leaving our obvious fingerprints on urban and agricultural landscapes, as well as less visible traces in the deepest oceans, which we’re rapidly polluting with plastic.
Humanity living within our planetary means is one thing. But to be human in the Anthropocene means something else altogether. Like the X-Men before they go to Xavier’s school, we’re powerful in ways most of us don’t even know.
We’re smart enough to do something about it
Yet the marvellous thing is, this species – our species – is starting to realise what’s happening. Smart minds in respected scientific institutions are figuring things out, and word is spreading to the highest levels of government (with a few notable exceptions) and to company boardrooms.
That precious knowledge means we can do something about it. We may have got here by accident – Victorian industrialists didn’t know their factories’ emissions would be linked in a couple of centuries’ time to extreme flooding in the southern USA – but we can fix the situation on purpose. We have the option of becoming not just the species that created the Anthropocene, but the one that took responsibility on a planetary scale, so that the amazing human flourishing we call civilization could continue for centuries, perhaps millennia, to come.
Astronauts have long said how fragile our world looks from space, with a startlingly thin layer of atmosphere, inside which lives the entire known consciousness in the universe. “There’s no doubt, when you look down at the Earth from here, you’re just overwhelmed by how beautiful it is,” NASA flight engineer Michael Barratt said. He added that two things immediately jump out: “One is how much you miss it, and two, is how much you really want to take care of it as best you can.”
Taking care of the Earth is an epic challenge. It requires wrestling with planetary-scale processes – the carbon cycle, weather patterns – and with entrenched ways of producing and consuming resources, right down to the household scale.
Making the nature-friendly option the easy option
In the Anthropocene, real leadership means rising to this challenge, making sure that we preserve the integrity and resilience of the natural world on which we all rely. It means governing ecologically, making the nature friendly option the easy option for businesses, communities, individuals and government departments. It means working at multiple scales: at the local level, co-creating plans with the people who live and work in each community; while co-operating across borders, both within the UK, and between the UK and other countries. It means thinking internationally, so that restoring nature in the UK doesn’t simply push harmful farming, fishing and manufacturing activities elsewhere in the world, but identifies and supports ways to farm, fish and manufacture that stand the test of time. And it means conserving our shared cultural heritage, as well as our natural heritage.
You and I might feel insignificant amongst the billions of people, past and present, who are collectively responsible for the mess the planet’s in. But that doesn’t mean we’re powerless. We can – and must – urge our governments to reshape the legal frameworks within which we all operate, to make it possible for us to live nature friendly lives. Being human doesn’t have to mean being environmentally destructive.
The UK government’s proposed 25 year plan for the environment is an important step, though it will also require a legal underpinning. And it will be, inescapably, a plan for people as well.
[Image: Harris by Lindy Buckley from Flickr Creative Commons]