An annual event celebrated around the world on April 22, Earth Day began as a response to the devastating impact that industrial activity has had upon our natural world. It was specifically precipitated by the 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill which released more than three million gallons off the coast of California. After having seen the damage from the spill, US Senator Gaylord Nelson, environmentalists Selma Rubin, Denis Hayes, and others were moved to create an initiative that would raise awareness and push for advocacy surrounding broad environmental issues. In the five decades since Earth Day was created, the world has witnessed more disasters accompanied by growing consciousness around these issues; the relevance and magnitude of its observance has only increased.
With each published study that demonstrates the catastrophic state of our natural environment comes a subsequent blow for the hope of a world existing in harmony with nature. As the perception of hope for solutions diminishes so our inner psychological state answers in form with a kind of degradation of the outlook we hold for ourselves and our kin. No single person can know the fate of our civilization and confidently discard the possibility of a more gracious and reciprocal relationship with our planet, yet we often live as if it was so; many of us convinced that we have gone too far in the decimation of our environment.
Refuting a Hopeless Assessment
It is the loss of hope and instinctual refutation of any possibility of improvement that seems to be so dangerous, for as previously stated, it is highly unlikely that any one of us at any point in history could have the certainty over our entire civilizations denouement, yet this is precisely what we claim when we look at our current state and conclude with self-assurance that there is nothing to be done. As author Christian Schwägerl writes in his book The Anthropocene: The Human Era and How it Shapes our Planet, “it is important to move beyond the doomsdayism so typically associated with environmentalism…”
So it seems that if we are to act in accordance with a vision for better planetary stewardship, we must believe such a vision is plausible; that we are capable of doing so, and that we are not as many have felt “too late, and too flawed” to come up with some effective shift. There has been recent acknowledgment of ‘climate fatigue’, a term used to describe a typical response in today’s youth toward climate and environmental emergencies. It seems pressing to acknowledge that there is an inner psychological component to our circumstance that directly affects our capacity to strive for solutions. So, as our inner state is constantly fed a barrage of information confirming our most feared environmental dread, how can we distinguish the reality of our world and the hopeless one we project outward?
Climate Crisis as a Mirror
Perhaps some of our answers lie not only in collecting more accurate and representative data but in transforming our capacity to interpret it. We must find a way to avoid becoming dogmatic about the environment’s demise to the point where we think the possibility of change should be repudiated as dangerous because it distracts from the ‘unquestionable fact’ that we are headed toward extinction. And in order to transform our ability to interpret the world we need to come to terms with the attitudes, expectations and assumptions we hold about the world that are deeply embedded within our psyche. In some sense, what we need is to reconcile ourselves with our shadow self, the part of ourselves we obscure and that negatively informs our interpretation of the world, producing conclusions that are based on our preconceived notions of reality as opposed to on what is true or what is possible.
As Carl Jung pointed out a century ago, there is an inextricable link between the external and internal worlds, and a manifestation in one is often accompanied by a reflection in the other. Jung spoke of large scale events that occurred during his lifetime as having a deep-seated parallel existing in the collective unconscious (the part of the unconscious mind which is derived from ancestral memory/experience and is common to all humankind) of entire civilizations and there is something to be gleaned about our own predicament considering the magnitude of its scale. It is sometimes easier for someone who has lost hope, to believe that it is all unsalvageable precisely because the possibility of hope brings with it the possibility of its loss, and for some that is simply too much to bear.
Reciprocity and Responsibility: From Spectators to Participants
Much to our chagrin, our role is not one of mere spectators. We must take up our environment as something not separate from us, and certainly not something which we can take for granted as if it were some perpetual machine that will continue its rumbling without affecting us and without being affected by us. The global COVID-19 pandemic has made us all rethink how through our unchecked activity in industrialized meat production we might be creating a source of a number of novel pathogens.
In his book What Has Nature Ever Done For Us?, Tony Juniper takes a profound look at how it is that we depend on the natural systems around us in ways we are not even aware of. In fact, he points out a simple but often unacknowledged truth, “Natural capital sustains financial capital.” The unique crossroads at which we stand compels us to make a courageous gesture reflecting this interconnectedness, yet we frequently feel utterly deflated by the popularly held conception that there is simply no use in trying. In order to move forward, we must acknowledge that we cannot do so without bringing our own shadow with us and that if we continue with significant unconsciousness, this, in turn, has the potential of souring any step we take.
Tony Juniper, well-known British environmentalist and adviser to Prince Charles, understands what’s happening on our planet. While he’s been fighting for a more sustainable society, Tony has also been sharing information about the dramatic changes that have been happening on earth. In the following video, you can hear some of the numbers that can help you understand the changes that are going on today.
10 Quick Facts About Climate Change from Tony Juniper
Since 1950, the world’s population has tripled
The number of cities with a population of over 10 million people was: one in 1950, ten in 1990, and is twenty-eight today
Global energy demand is expected to double by 2030 compared to 1990 (with most new capacity coming from renewable sources)
Only about 1/4 of the planet’s agricultural land is being used to grow crops, the rest is being used to raise animals
About 97.5% of the planet’s total water resources is salt water, about 0.3% is liquid water at the surface, the rest is locked in groundwater and ice caps
Since 1900, the consumption of construction materials, metals, ores, fossil fuels and biomass has increased tenfold
Carbon dioxide concentrations in the planet’s atmosphere are higher now than at any point in at least the last 800,000 years
Ten thousand years ago, 99.9% of vertebrate biomass was composed of wild animals; today, 96% of vertebrate biomass is made up of people and their domesticated animals
The rate of animal and plant extinction taking place on the planet today is approaching a rate not seen on earth for 65 million years
Since 1962, the area of protected habitat on the planet, in the form of national parks and nature reserves, has increased fourteen fold, to reach more than 33 million square kilometers
Understanding What the Planet Does for Us
As we try to understand what’s happening to the planet, we can also learn what the planet does for us. Take a more in depth look at the services that nature freely provides to humanity, many of which we don’t even realize.
In What Has Nature Ever Done for Us? British environmentalist Tony Juniper points out that we think everything nature does for us—providing water, pollinating plants, generating oxygen, recycling miracles in the soil and much more—is free, but it isn’t. Its economic value can, and has been, measured. And upon realizing what that value truly is we would stop treating our natural systems in a destructive manner. For example, in 2005 Hurricane Katrina cost the US $81 billion and the damage still remains. If the land around the levees hadn’t been redeveloped for shipping and aquaculture, at an estimated value of $100,000 to $450,000 per square mile of natural mangroves, then it is believed, much of the damage caused to the city would not have occurred.
During recent years, environmental debate worldwide has been dominated by climate change, carbon emissions and the greenhouse effect. But a number of academic, technical, political, business and NGO initiatives indicate the emergence of a new wave of environmental attention focused on “natural capital,” “ecosystem services” and “biodiversity,” things nature does for us.
What Has Nature Ever Done for Us? contains impactful stories imparting warnings about unfortunate occurrences such as a rabies epidemic that followed the disappearance of India’s vultures (drugs administered to cattle killed the birds, leaving uneaten carcasses that led to an explosion of wild dogs), as well as promising and enlightening tales of how birds protect fruit harvests, coral reefs shield coasts from storms, and rainforests absorb billions of tons of carbon released from automobiles and power stations. As a result of its immediacy, Tony Juniper’s book will entirely change the way you think about life, the planet and the economy.
David Suzuki called the UN Paris agreement a milestone in the Anthropocene Era, and an indication that “the Age of Humans won’t necessarily lead to an age of destruction.” (The Guardian) While I’m as optimistic as they come, it’s clear that humanity needs to act swiftly and on a grand scale to effect and uphold the major changes that must occur to prevent a planetary catastrophe.
One of my favorite eco-heros, Tony Juniper, a campaigner, writer, and sustainability adviser reports from Paris conference this month: “Increased atmospheric CO2 is doing much more than warming the Earth, it’s also acidifying oceans, something that is already having major impacts on ocean ecology in the Southern Ocean and the North Atlantic. Likely effects: more CO2 in the atmosphere, more jellyfish … We really have to put the brakes on carbon dioxide and very fast. These effects are already becoming very large and there are huge uncertainties as to how this will affect among other things food production.”(The Ecologist)
Atmospheric CO2 levels are the highest they have been in millions of years and the impacts of climate change are also impacting corporate and government balance sheet at such levels that corporations are starting to sit up and take notice. Trade can no longer trump climate, as the NAFTA’s policy has upheld for decades. There is no part of the economy that doesn’t depend on Nature, says Juniper. If there is no Nature, he argues, there can be no economy, no growth, no business.
The solution, Tony says, is a shift to a “bioeconomy” where our economic system is a subset of Nature, and not the other way around. A world where the technosphere is designed to support and sustain the biosphere, not use it up. See his talk at TEDxWWF.
NEWS FLASH: UPDATING THIS POST TO AUGUST 30, 2016 — The Geological Commission has the following update published today saying a majority are convinced there is enough evidence to support recognizing us to be in a new geological epoch, the anthropocene, where humanity has become the most dominant geological force on the planet.
“The majority of us think it is real; that there is clearly something happening; that there are clearly signals in the environment that are recognisable and make the Anthropocene a distinct unit; and the majority of us think it would be justified to formally recognise it.
“That doesn’t mean it will be formalised, but we’re going to go through the procedure of putting in a submission.”
They estimate 2 to 3 years for the application process to be completed.
Here are two excellent talks on the topic. Author, journalist and Anthropocene expert, Christian Schwagerl with champion for the environment, Tony Juniper, President of the Wildlife Trusts in UK.
Christian Schwägerl and Tony Juniper
“The conditions that will come with the Anthropocene are not simply a technical and scientific subject, they’re also highly political, philosophical and about the relationship that we wish to foster with the earth into the future.” -Tony Juniper at the Royal Society of Arts. Here’s a podcast of their joint talk.
“We’re here to discuss and to listen about the point in time in which homo sapiens. . . are now influencing the geology of our world and the societal impact of that.” -Robin McKie at the Royal Institution
The Anthropocene idea originated with Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, who realized the impact that human activities were having on the atmosphere. The research that Crutzen conducted revealed how certain chemicals were depleting the Ozone layer. This information incited activists to fight for bans in the 1980s on chemicals that were being used in refrigerants and aerosol cans. It’s been encouraging to see that in the years since these changes were made, Ozone levels have been steadily increasing.
The significance of this finding led Crutzen to wonder about other ways that humans might be impacting the environment. As the list of his findings kept growing longer, Crutzen was led to the revolutionary idea that the influence of humanity on earth has reached a point that warrants its own geologic epoch: the “Anthropocene.”
Christian provides twelve key ideas as we move toward a more responsible and conscious Anthropocene:
Redefining our sense of time
To get a sense of our place in the Anthropocene, we need to redefine our sense of time.
We find ourselves caught in an instantaneous flow of information, keeping us thinking in the short-term. Compared with the doomsdayism so typically associated with thinking of the environmental movement which doesn’t encourage much consideration for what the distant future will look like. By expanding our sense of time to include the long now, we can give our actions a deeper context.
When you get into a car today, you’re touching the deep past. The gasoline powering the vehicles we drive so casually was formed three hundred million years ago. At the same time, we’re also touching the deep future; fifty thousand years from now, carbon molecules released from your roadtrip will still be influencing the atmosphere.
Cities that “think like a planet”
We have to include human civilization in our understanding of nature. Cities must learn to function as planetary ecosystems. That means more sustainable transportation systems, renewable energy sources, and locally grown sources of food.
Humans are involved in the cyclical system of the biosphere where everything comes back around. There’s nowhere that resources can be extracted from without an impact; there’s nowhere to dump waste materials where they’ll disappear.
Turning agriculture into an ecosystem
The business of growing food and raising animals for human consumption now takes place on an area of land larger than the size of South America. We have to take measures to counteract the destruction of soils caused by pesticides and chemical fertilizers, reverse deforestation, and consider the influence that our personal dietary choices have on global.
Making technology compostable
Technology that is compostable must become the new standard. The iPhone has elements from forty different mountains. When we consider the resources that we’re pulling as a society from the earth for our technology, we can start to respect the process. The biosphere has a recycling process built in, and the technosphere has to become integrated within it.
Building a real sharing economy
When we consider the material level that people strive for around the world, and then multiply that by that number of humans currently on the planet it shows us that instead of fighting for resources, we need to be sharing them.
We need to be using the energy we have more wisely. We need to be encouraging meaningful strides in innovation by investing in energy research.
Becoming conscious about directed evolution
Humanity has been breeding animals and cultivating plants for over ten thousand years. More recently, innovations in biological technology provide humans with even greater level of power over evolutionary outcomes. Will the use of this power reflect an attitude of stewardship or of short-term capitalist interests?
Developing an ethos of connectedness
Though the name ‘Anthropocene’ reflects on our species, it can serve to open us up to a greater sense of all of the other life forms we share this planet with. By putting human history into a context of natural history, it can increase our sense of connection with the planetary story.
Making the economy a subset of ecology
The Anthropocene combines the spheres of economy and ecology. By putting economics into an ecological framework, we can adjust our perspective so that natural resources are not viewed as externalities, but as our true source of wealth.
Linking our lifestyles with global phenomena
In the Anthropocene we can connect our daily choices with their global impact and reflect on the influence that those choices have. We can ask ourselves what we offer back to the earth every day. In this way we can consider what we give as a daily offering to the planet—is it the contents of our garbage can?
This idea can help focus us and motivate us by contextualizing the role each person has as an individual in this epoch.
Building an internet of all things
We already have an internet that connects us with so many things in the world, from highly discounted products shipped right to our doorstep to an endless stream of cat pictures, but by creating an internet of all things we can brings in the interests of all life forms on earth. Perhaps such an internet could help us calculate the best actions to take now according to the interests of future generations.
We generally think of ourselves as a materialistic culture, but are we really if we buy things to throw them away after one use? Companies build products with planned obsolescence, so that they stop working in just a few years and we buy new things. We have to provide incentives to make lasting, quality products rather than focusing on maximizing profits.
An artistic representation of a future plastic-laden fossil. From Craft in the Anthropocene, by Yesenia Thibault-Picazo
Every choice, every action has an influence on the rest of life on earth. The globalization of our society has such a far reach that the contents of our refrigerators span continents, oftentimes without our even realizing their exotic origins. The Anthropocene reflects a change in our consciousness as we realize our role as the dominant force on the planet. As we come to appreciate this power, we must consider how to be democratic in considering the interests of future generations as well as those who are most vulnerable to climate change but may not have as strong of a voice in the plutocratic political structures that are currently in place.
As we face the possibilities of this new epoch, we should remain optimistic. The Anthropocene is an open idea. It’s an idea that presents us with a wide range of challenges at the same time that it imbues us with the agency to shift the course of life on earth. As we begin to acknowledge the reality of our role as planetary stewards, we can start by bringing mindfulness to the choices that shape our lives and intention to the actions that will shape our world.
To read more on this radical investigation of our global situation, pick up your own copy of The Anthropocene: The Human Era and How It Shapes Our Planet in our bookstore.