Expired · 21st July 2011
Our human history has been a long process of taking greater control of the circumstances that affect us. Our early shelters and fires eased the inclemency of weather to make our living conditions more comfortable. Our agriculture replaced a dependence on wild plants and animals with the reliability of managed fields and pens where we could cultivate grains and rear cattle.
Indeed, the whole of human history has been a process of wresting control from the vagaries of nature. Writing eliminated the past by capturing the present in a set of recorded symbols. The mysteries of life and death were illuminated by traditions of religion and philosophy. Labour was ameliorated by the use of animals and then by the ingenuity of engines powered by steam and oil. Electricity has illuminated the dark and energized innumerable conveniences. Modern buildings are models of regulated climate. Our cars, trains and planes have shrunk the obstacle of distance. Digital communication is eliminating the constraints of space and time. Amazing surgery and pharmaceuticals are alleviating illness, pain and suffering. If the shape of landscapes or the flows of rivers don't suit our needs, then we change them. And if nature doesn't provide the materials we want, we invent new ones.
All this is anthropogenesis, human created. And it should be a source of immense pride and satisfaction, for it marks us as a species of incredible capability and accomplishment.
Granted, we can't control everything. The tectonic plates of our planet shift and heave with unpredictable impulse, sending us scurrying for safety and causing us huge ruin. The forces of weather buffet our security and shake our intentions. Insects, vermin and fungi eat our farmed crops. A biological army of bacteria and viruses attack our bodies, causing the misfortunes of sickness and death.
Yet, despite these unconquered adversities, we have done very well as a species. Our human population has burgeoned from a few straggling millions to many billions. Most of us live with abundance unimaginable a mere century ago.
Despite all these accomplishments, we still possess a curious blindness, a strange unawareness. While we have engineered significant portions of nature to suit our needs, we have yet to fully accept the responsibility that comes with this influence. Anthropogenesis is making us the de facto managers of our planet's biosphere. This crucial portion of Earth's ecology not only determines our own well-being but it governs the diversity of species, the level of seas, the purity of air and water, the prevalence of forests, the stability of soils, the abundance of minerals, and even the weather that generates climate. We have been so influential that archeologists have termed this eon of Earth's history the Anthropocene. In short, we have changed from being passive recipients of nature's bounty to engaged creators of nature's character.
But we have not yet surmounted our old habit of being victims or accepted our new role as custodians. We still retain the image of ourselves as noble beings struggling against great adversity, when we should now be thinking of ourselves as wise managers coordinating a system of vast complexity ‹ just as pride is necessary to provide endurance for the oppressed, humility is necessary to provide guidance for the powerful. While we still think in the old and narrow paradigm of self-interest, we should now be thinking in the new and holistic paradigm of the entire planet.
This new obligation comes with an uncomfortable irony. The weight of our new responsibility encumbers us with duties unimagined in an age of powerlessness. A world-wide biological survey in 2008 reported that "half of all mammal populations are declining" and "a quarter of the 5,487 wild mammal species on the planet are threatened with extinction" (National Post, May 19/11). If the climate change we are inducing is dooming 35 percent of all plant and animal species to extinction by 2050, what burden of guilt should weigh upon us? British ecologist Chris Thomas notes the "sad possibility" that these predicted consequences of climate change by 2100 "may be modest, rather than excessive" (Ibid.). Even if the least destructive scenario comes to fruition, this marks the incredible success of our species as a stupendous calamity ‹ a defining awareness that should revolutionize how we presently think and act.
In the history of Western civilization, a sea-change in consciousness occurred as we moved from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. The God-centred servitude of the old centuries became the man-centred liberation of a new paradigm. Unshackled thought, expression and action created unimaginable innovation in everything from religion and politics to economics and technology. We began to steer our destiny as never before. We discovered our humanity and the merits of being humane.
We are now applying this process of discovery to our planet. Our understanding of its biological, chemical and geophysical mechanisms are exploding – just as we are disrupting and destroying them as never before in human history. These are the two faces of anthropogenesis. And they signal a time of crisis, a moment when our present paradigm is collapsing and a new one must be born.
Such transitions do not invite, they demand. They are non-negotiable. And they are dangerous. They can wreck us If they are blindly and foolishly denied, or they can rejuvenate us if they are wisely and bravely confronted. This moment in our human history is nothing less than critical.