Seeing the Anthropocene as a responsibility: to act with care for each other and for our planet

by Laura Pereira, University of Cape Town (UCT), South Africa

This post is my contribution to the debate on the Anthropocene initiated by Andy Stirling in his blog. His comments were sparked from a panel discussion at the Transformations conference where we were honoured to find ourselves on a panel together with Marcela D’Souza and with Elin Enfors as chair. We were tasked with discussing the SDGs in light of the debates at the conference on Planetary Boundaries and Sustainability Transformations, but the conversation often came back to the concept of the Anthropocene.

In essence, Andy has said in his blog that he “expressed serious concerns about the kinds of agency asserted in the notion of ‘the Anthropocene’.” While acknowledging the complexities and good intentions around this notion, he argued that “this mood of externally-oriented control can oppose and undermine the real values essential to Sustainability: instead laying the foundations for planetary geoengineering.”

It is primarily with this argument that I would like to engage in this blog post, but I will also respond to the critique of the notion of “good Anthropocenes” as being largely ecomodernist or transhumanist. As Andy has set out the crux of the Anthropocene discussion, I will not dwell on that, but instead will jump right into my own interpretation of the term – and how I feel it can be used to motivate fundamental change.

This requires thinking of the Anthropocene not only as an epoch, but also as a concept that has political power which can mobilize action.

Responsibility

My starting premise is that I see the concept of the Anthropocene as less about control – as argued by Andy, and more about responsibility. It necessitates an acknowledgement that human actions can have not just a detrimental impact on the planet – but also on each other. –So the idea of the Anthropocene needs to extend not only to include planetary impacts, but social impacts too.

As humans have gained increasing control over the planet’s resources and therefore begun to alter the Earth’s systems, this access to resources has been concentrated amongst a small percentage of the human population. ‘Development’ is supposed to rectify this imbalance– but in doing so, we recognise that there are not enough planets for us all to live the American dream. The whole notion of what is means to live a fulfilling life in the 21st century needs to shift.

(Furthermore, the idea of control runs counter to our knowledge of how complex systems work; I believe that the idea that we can actively control how the earth functions went out with the idea that science is fundamentally objective. We can only do the best we can with the knowledge that we have- which is increasingly substantial- to navigate our way to a more just and sustainable future.)

So, for me, the Anthropocene embeds a sense of responsibility on humanity to realise that our actions and lifestyles have impacts not only for the environment, but also for our fellow humans.

Behaviour and survival

There is an ethics underlying the idea that we now live in the age of the Anthropocene where our actions can make or break the survival of our species. It’s fundamentally about human survival – hence my reference to planetary boundaries being a selfish concept during the debate. Navigating the Anthropocene is about maintaining the planet in a state where we as humans can thrive.

The ethical aspect comes in because it is our actions that are the main drivers of shifting the planet out of the stability of the Holocene., This recognition raises the imperative for us to change our behaviour. Earth will be here for a long time to come, but whether our species can survive on it is another matter, which has a lot more to do with how we control our own actions now and a lot less to do with how we control the planet. There is no excuse when there is no ignorance.

Framings and power

Just because concepts can be co-opted by the powerful does not mean we should dismiss them. Instead, we should strive to ensure that our framing maintains the core values that we believe are important.

It is the nature of power to capture what it can – I think it is up to us to provide resistance and to hold power to account. This has become increasingly clear to me this week as I find myself supporting a revolutionary power struggle in South Africa, as students have come together in force to bring a check on the power that would deprive them of an education if they do not have the financial means.

What is a ‘good Anthropocene’?

And so finally, to the idea of ‘good’ Anthropocenes. If we understand the Anthropocene as an era in which humans are a dominant force on the planet – for good or for ill – then returning to a previous age (i.e. the Holocene, when humans were NOT the dominant force) is not a likely option; we cannot turn back the clock, but must therefore proceed into the ‘future-as-Anthropocene’.

How, then, can humans be the dominant force for good (i.e a ‘good Anthropocene’) rather than a force for ill (i.e. a ‘bad Anthropocene’)?

I fully understand that the notions of what a good and bad future might be are very different for different people, but it is nevertheless important (if we’re thinking of the Anthropocene as a political tool and with targets like the SDGs to guide us), to be able to frame the current discourse on the Anthropocene with an empowering message that if we take responsibility, a better future is possible.

I feel quite strongly about this in that we are so often faced with negative trajectories of the future – and this is a particularly disempowering message for young people who have been tasked with fixing the problems of the ‘Great Acceleration’ if we’re to make it past the age of 50. How can we inspire people to change their behavior?

A brighter future is possible

As mentioned, I’ve been particularly struck this week by the student protests in South Africa and the revolutionary zeal that the youth have shown in disrupting power to create transformation with the #FeesMustFall movement.

However, in order to mobilize this strength, we need some stories of hope that a brighter future is possible. We cannot empower people when it seems like there is no hope; that the die was cast by previous generations. This is especially true when change means countering bastions of entrenched power and privilege.

By identifying pockets where things are going right and empowering people to think about more positive futures, but with the knowledge of the impact that humans have had on the planet so far, we might indeed see transformation in our lifetime.


Laura Pereira is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Department of Environmental and Geographical Science, University of Cape Town. She tweets at @laurap18.


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