Issue 14: nature

A new human era

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by Tom Chatfield on February 12, 2017

Earth has lost half of its wild animals in the last forty years. What does it mean to be philosophical about this? The last time there was this much carbon in the atmosphere, humanity didn’t even exist. What should we think or feel about this terrain we’re entering: the prospect that future generations may see those born in the late 20th century as the last humans to know ecological innocence?

These are grim questions – and I can feel my mind sliding away from them even as I type. It’s much more fun to check social media, to water those drooping sunflowers in my garden, to put out some food for the birds, to seek refuge in the daily scale of domesticity.

But still the questions wait. Between writing this paragraph and the last I have put out some birdfeed, watered a few plants, made myself a cup of tea and returned to my desk – during which time the words of behavioural economist Dan Ariely have begun circling in my mind: “If you were starting from scratch, and you said, ‘Let me create a problem that people would not care about’, it would look very much like global warming.” There’s nothing like a steady increase in atmospheric carbon to lay bare the limitations of human cognition. The most serious consequences of climate change are distant from their causes in time and space; they are surrounded by uncertainty and dissent; they are both a tremendously big deal and a wickedly complex problem to address, let alone redress. All of which is confounding when it comes to commanding engagement even from someone in my comfortable position – let alone people struggling to support their families, earn a living or survive.

Whenever we talk about nature, we invoke a tension. Nature simultaneously describes the non-human realm – whatever is not made or maintained by us – and the earthly entirety of which we are a part. Similarly, human nature is perpetually pulling itself apart. We use this phrase to describe our most fundamental attributes, with anthropological overtones and a strong whiff of primitivism. Yet it also describes everything we have accomplished in augmenting and exceeding our origins, including the edifices of technology and culture against which biological nature is defined.

It’s a bit of a mess, and we wouldn’t have it any other way – for it’s in our natures both to exceed and to fret over our limitations. It’s also a mess that echoes our current situation. Once upon a time, the natural world was big, beautiful, brutal, bottomless, and strange. It surrounded us, nurtured us, betrayed us, outlasted us. But it also endured. Its scale was not our scale, its rhythms those of countless generations. Now, we are entering a transition charted in centuries rather than millennia: the Anthropocene, the ‘new human era’, a term coined to describe the post-industrial impact of human activities upon the Earth (this August, an expert group at the International Geological Congress in Cape Town officially endorsed its adoption as our current geological epoch– dating back to the testing of the first hydrogen bombs).

All of which reinforces the angst behind my opening query – what does it mean to engage philosophically with the emerging facts of this age? Writing in 2012 under the title Utopias in the Anthropocene, the Australian ethicist Clive Hamilton explored a double constriction in the timescales at play. “In the Anthropocene, in addition to the past we seek to escape, now we have a future we want to avoid; so we are squeezed from both ends,” he argued. “Nature, we are learning, has its own grand narrative, a narrative against all (human) narratives… So now we must find ways to navigate it, to accommodate whatever it throws at us, to work out how to live on a planet less liveable.”

What nature is poised to throw at us cannot be known in detail, but ‘less liveable’ may end up sounding euphemistic. ‘Unliveable in parts’ might be a better description, especially if you’re of the non-human persuasion. For Hamilton, philosophy fails when it overstates human agency in the face of nature, or sticks to old categories of hope and mastery in the face of new realities. As he explained in a 2015 essay building on his earlier paper, “in the Anthropocene the Earth has been mobilised; it will not be subdued and now holds our fate in its hands.” That which we have caused we cannot uncause, and may barely be able to mitigate.

This may be true, but it’s also a poor enticement to getting on with mitigating. What we need for this, according to Jonathan Rowson – British thinker and founding director of the policy organisation Perspectiva – is a dose of simplicity sufficient to focus our minds on action.

First, Rowson argues, there’s the business of cause and effect. Human-made climate change is driven by the burning of fossil fuels. Finding a fast, successful way to stop burning fossil fuels is thus the crucial question – and this means disentangling climate change both from broader environmental concerns and their proselytising representatives.

“The psychological, social and economic phenomena driving fossil fuel production are obscured by debates about the killing of badgers, the dredging of rivers and the protection of otters,” Rowson wrote in 2014 for The Guardian. “Moreover, as long as environmentalists are the public face of climate change it is too easy to conveniently and unfairly dismiss a universal moral imperative as a tribal anti-capitalist agenda.” Without a broad appeal, and an unshackling from other ideologically-charged issues, there’s no chance of mustering the will or consensus for action.

Invoking this universal moral imperative is a matter not so much of ethics as of sanity: of doing what is necessary within a world whose transformation demands the participation of unlikely allies. Energy giants and governments will need to work with activists; ethicists with innovators; ecologists with factory-owners; rich with poor. They will need a common language and a plan – and this means a diversity of perspectives mobilised around a common aim. For Rowson, these perspectives are the “seven dimensions of climate change”: science, law, money, technology, democracy, culture, and behaviour. Only an approach literate across these domains can bring the world as it is on board – and help make it into something it is not.

Whether you agree with the detail or not, I admire the mixed precision and inclusiveness of this approach: define the task at hand as clearly as possible, then cast your nets wide and deep. It’s more useful than existential foreboding, and more likely to persuade than ideological implacability.

The thing about dread, like many of our primal emotions, is that it lets us off the hook; it betrays our better natures. Dread is vague, immobilising; it aches to be suppressed. It stands between us and action, whispering that we will fail – or that we matter little in the first place. Against this, there is in us the potency of more precisely imagined futures; of minds not simply reflecting but also altering our world.

Back to my garden: sunlight angling through leaves against a window. I lived in London for a decade without a garden, rarely hearing birdsong. Now it surrounds me, exquisite, an astonishing gift. Am I closer to nature? Is nature a kind of housing perk, like proximity to good schools and a railway station? No. Nature is the whole deal, the house and the garden, the city and the country. It’s the sole guarantor of our existence in this, the one known corner of the universe hospitable to life. We are in it, of it, at its mercy, and yet – whether we like it or not – in the process of altering its course. Time to swallow fear and to ask what hard lessons the new human era may teach.

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