The Anthropocene: a Product of Human Intelligence and Consumerism

The environmental studies material for this week focuses largely on the concept of the Anthropocene, and explores the human perspective of life and culture’s impact on Earth’s ecology. Humans, which have only existed for a small fraction of Earth’s existence, have made enormous impressions on the landscape and life systems of our planet. Through restructuring our understanding of Earth’s history and our place in the universe, and contemplating the root causes of anthropogenic exploitation of nature, we can begin to take on the task of creating a sustainable future for life on Earth. 

First of all, the “Anthropocene,” the unofficial title for the current geological epoch,  encapsulates the time period in which humans have had a large impact on Earth’s ecology. The Anthropocene is said to begin some time around the Atomic Age and the Great Acceleration, a point in the mid-twentieth century when “socioeconomic and Earth system trends started increasing dramatically” (Wikipedia September 11, 2020). Some even claim the beginnings to be much further in the past, as early as the industrial revolutions or even thousands of years earlier, due to the geological ramifications of the rise of industry and even earlier cultural shifts such as agriculture. Some harmful effects of the Anthropocene are the decline of biodiversity, the homogenisation of ecosystems, climate change, and the general degradation of much of Earth’s natural capital, including major ecosystems such as the coral reefs. Something which stood out to me when reading about the Anthropocene and its ramifications was Vladimir Vernadsky’s  assertion of “scientific thought as a geological force” (Wikipedia September 11, 2020). This concept of human intelligence as a direct force of nature is resonant and powerful, as it demonstrates the degree to which the development of society can significantly uplift and degrade life. 

Personally, I believe that the Anthropocene and the realms of capitalism, colonization, and social injustice go hand-in-hand. It is mentioned on the wikipedia page for the Anthropocene that some believe the term “Capitalocene” is more accurate in describing the phenomenon of the human era. Capitalism, which thrives on the mass consumption of goods reaped from natural capital, undoubtedly plays a major role in our growing ecological footprint. I also believe, however, that capitalism is a direct outcome of the developments of materialism and hierarchy, so inequality and racism also factor heavily into the degradation of the Anthropocene. The yearning for wealth which embodied colonialism feeds into the growing presence of materialism and consequential socioeconomic power structures. These hierarchical social standings in turn feed on the undermining of racial minorities, leading to a larger desire for material power and the intensification of industrial and capitalist activities. These entities evidently act in a cycle which grows as societies develop. Therefore, capitalism, which feeds on the entrails of colonization and human social issues, has led to the degradation and reshaping of the geography of Earth.

An example that demonstrates this connection between the Anthropocene with colonialism, capitalism, and social injustice is the overhunting of the American Bison. As explained in “Case Study: The Return of the American Bison,” as the tribal era of the United States shifted to the frontier era, a drastic change in the treatment of natural capital took place. Native American communities lived a modest and sustainable lifestyle, which took from the land on a basis of necessity. As far as the bison are concerned, Native tribes would typically only hunt them according to their needs. However, when settlers from Europe began to colonize the western United States, they not only demonstrated a blatant disrespect towards the native people, but also obliterated the country’s bison populations. This occurred because the colonizers would hunt not according to necessity, but for large-scale consumption, for sport, for delicacies and exported goods, and for pest control. The animals were also killed off in the racist effort to eliminate Native populations by reducing a key element of their food and lifestyle. Additionally, many of the hunted bison were only killed for a part or two, and left to rot. This contrasts the Native American manner of hunting, in which the entire animal was used and respected. The carelessness of American colonials and the capitalization of bison products led to the near mass extinction of the species, and the demise of a large part of Native American culture. In general, the elimination of a species can cause extreme detriments to its ecosystem, and damage the well being of the species and humans to which it is connected. Clearly, colonialism, capitalism, and social injustice are linked to the geological era of the Anthropocene and must be resolved if ecological justice is to be actualized. 

Fig. 2, Mass- killings of American Bison in the 1800s

A way that humans can learn to reshape their anthropogenic perspective is through the concept of big history, which allows us to understand human existence in the context of the expanse of the cosmos. Rather than starting history from the inception of human culture, big history teaches us to look much, much further, to the beginnings of the universe itself. It teaches how scientific principles like chemistry and physics bind aspects of the universe to one another, and how those things connect to earth’s history and human culture. Big history also embraces abstract concepts like that of Goldilocks Conditions, which I find particularly fascinating. The idea that “circumstances must be right for any type of complexity to form or continue to exist” demonstrates the rarity and, in my opinion, the inherent value of life (Wikipedia August 16, 2020). Understanding our existence as a product of precise cosmic alignment for me gives immense insight into our responsibility to do our part in maintaining the habitability of Earth. 

Fig. 1: Goldilocks condition

Similarly, throughout the history of Environmentalism, there is a great emphasis on  nature as holding inherent, rather than just economic, value. In today’s society, the perceived value of an item is almost always dependent on its ability to sell, to be used as a product, or to be admired in a matter of social standing. However, the environmentalist movement as a whole challenges this idea, as its foundation rests in nature as an entity for which we are interdependently a part of and which inherently deserves to thrive. The Anthropocene in the context of environmentalism is interesting because hypothetically, the hyperintelligence and technological potential of humans allows for a harmony with earth which could surpass the need for relentless consumerism. However, it would undoubtedly take a large-scale change of heart for humans to choose the path towards a sustainable future. John Diamond even suggests that there are two vital choices the human race must make as a collective in order to salvage our existence on this earth: the commitment to developing long-term planning, and the “willingness to reconsider core values” (Wikipedia July 19, 2020). Humans have the ability to salvage the health of the earth and their mere existence on the planet, but it depends on their willingness to reconsider their perspective and commit themselves to the task. 

In conclusion, the Anthropocene, a product of capitalism, colonialism, and social injustice, holds dangerous ramifications for Earth’s future. However, re-examining human history on a large scale can help us understand why humans have changed the face of the Earth so drastically and why a natural Earth inherently deserves to be preserved. The effects of the Anthropocene we have created are immense, so we must make the necessary choices at hand to use our human power for good. We should do our best to create an Anthropocene which doesn’t hinge on destruction and exploitation, as it would be a tremendous waste to continue in the idle destruction of the rare life-filled phenomenon that is Earth. 

Word Count: 1283

Question: What sort of change in human activity would create a new geological epoch? Could humans exist in a non-anthropocene future?

Bibliography

“Anthropocene.” Wikipedia. Last modified September 11, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anthropocene#cite_note-Doughty10-28.

“Big History.” Wikipedia. Last modified August 16, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_History.

“The Buffalo.”Marmatt. http://www.marmatt.com/works-by-sg/books/smog-series/lost/disp.php?call=the-buffalo

“Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.” Wikipedia. Last modified July 19, 2020. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collapse:_How_Societies_Choose_to_Fail_or_Succeed.

Minilab Studios. “Happy Earth Day From Minilab Studios.” https://www.minilabstudios.com/happy-earth-day-from-minilab-studios/.

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