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The Anthropocene? Planet Earth in the Age of Humans

Today’s guest blog post is by AAA member Shirley J Fiske. Fiske is an environmental anthropologist and Research Professor at University of Maryland’s College Park campus.  She is the Chair of the American Anthropological Association ’s task force on Global Climate Change. 

The first in a series of Grand Challenges symposia organized by the Smithsonian for the public (at least the highly educated, concerned public from what I could tell)—a full day with stellar speakers and response panels.  Invigorating discussion and ideas.  Kudos!  Many well-known names Charles Mann (1491, 1493 ), Richard Alley, Andrew Revkin, Senator Tim Wirth and incredibly moving & convincing presentation by photographer Chris Jordan whose images of “the infrastructure of our mass consumption” are familiar to many – as well as his photos of the stomach contents of dead baby Albatrosses on Midway Island, showing them starved with their bellies full of plastic debris.

Environmental humanities were well-represented and exciting, but the social sciences less so – disappointingly, economist Sabine O’Hara did nothing to illuminated the human aspects of the changes in the Anthropocene but chose to talk about “internalizing the economy.”  However, two archaeologists, both at the Smithsonian, did an excellent job as panelists-rapporteurs, ensuring that the audience kept the long dimension of human evolution and development in mind.  Rick Potts, (National Museum of Natural History, Human Origins Program Director), a paleo-anthropologist, offered a tantalizing insight, roughly paraphrased as a lot of change took place during periods of high climate variability (unstable periods)—such as innovations in lithic technology and other things.  He also stated that he’s in the process of getting a long core that will show us 500,000 years of climate change in East Africa during the time period of the development of our species.  Torben C. Rick (NMNH Director of the Program in Human Ecology and Archaeobiology)  focused on the “mid-term time frame”—the last 1,000 years!  and offered that sustainability rests on reconciling the short term developments with long term cycles.  The last 10,000 years has been a series of changes, re-organizations—not collapses.

The symposium was titled as a declarative, but there was a necessary and good discussion about whether naming it the Anthropocene showed abundant human hubris in our assumed agency in changing the world and the course of the earth .  In that vein, some concluded that whatever we do at this point won’t have any effect on the ‘big picture’ of the earth’s 4-billion year existence and that the Anthropocene is wrongly named.  Highlights and some familiar assumptions, brought to the fore, were that nature can no longer be studied in isolation from humans and human systems. (check!), that ‘homogenization’ of the planet started well before the industrial revolution (Mann), that we’re the first species that recognizes who recognizes that we’re having a global impact (compared with, say, cyanobacteria);  and that we need to move away from trying to “manage” the system and focus on monitoring and adapting;  the recognition that science-based decision have inherently imbedded values within them  (Revkin).

Richard Alley has re-focused his energy onto renewables, pointing out that is the direction we need to go, that all the easy oil is gone.  His talk made abundantly clear that the argument that encouraging renewable energy means loss of jobs is a blatant red herring; that the way to start such a massive transformation is to jettison the dirtiest and most dangerous (i.e. the work of coal mining is one of the most dangerous jobs in the US) of fossil fuel resources, coal, and develop the others.  He de-bunked the ‘myth of intermittency’ (my words) with wind and solar energy quite effectively.  One of the panelists aptly said Alley is a “radical center of an environmental view of the world.”  Glad to have him there.

The culture concept was constantly invoked, as it is almost universally these days.  “How do we change culture?”   (away from consumption, from “need,” from capitalism or communism)  The most insightful answers (although not necessarily action-oriented) came from photographer Chris Jordan, who argued that we should do essentially nothing, in the short term;  we should let our human-created disaster settle in and we should grieve.  It is only by grieving fully that we will reconnect with our spiritual side and with love, the fundamental emotion of humans.  The symposium was organized to begin a dialogue around the meaning of the Anthropocene, and it accomplished those goals.  The symposium led me to conclude, similar to one of the speakers (Alley?) who said that the meaning of the Anthropocene is ethical and moral – how do we want the future to look and what can we do with the knowledge we have?

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