Governance in the Anthropocene

Underlying the Anthropocene is the idea that, just as we distinguish previous geological periods from one another based on sedimentary layers, so too are humans laying down markers of their domination of the planet that will stand the test of geologic time. One such marker is the radioactive fallout from nuclear explosions in the twentieth century. Others might be the layers of ocean sediment accumulating as the result of acidification, higher carbon concentrations in the atmosphere deposited in accumulating glaciers and ice sheets, and extensive erosion and redeposition from global land cover change.

The defining characteristic of the Anthropocene is human dominance of Earth systems. Previously, the earth was seen as consisting of natural biomes—areas of tundra, taiga, savannah, desert, etc.—that humans affected in ways that sometimes permanently disturbed them, such as when agricultural practices led to desertification. But what is new in the Anthropocene is that there are no longer any “natural biomes” at all. Rather, humans have changed planetary land-cover patterns to such an extent that there are only “anthromes.” Even where there has been no direct intervention, such as deforestation or plowing, the biomes are changing in profound, if less readily observable ways under pressure from temperature changes, acid rain, higher levels of CO2, and invasive species. The assumption that there is a background set of stable conditions—“nature”—is no longer tenable.

For this reason, we must abandon the assumption that Earth systems, while variable, fluctuate within an overall envelope of stability. Even commonplace ideas like “renewable water” assume that there are perennial stocks and annual flows of water that remain relatively consistent over time. But once the background conditions of the hydrologic cycle are altered by human impacts on the climate system, we must fundamentally rethink such ideas because the stable basis that once seemed “natural” can no longer be assumed. Grappling with this new normal requires revolutionary changes to the way we think, and goes far beyond the technical problems of climate change. In this way, our entrance to the Anthropocene should also compel us to revisit the governance norms, or rules of right conduct, that have led us into this new, unstable era.

There are two principal ways to think about what norms should guide the use of geoengineering, which roughly parallel Berry's technozoic and ecozoic paths. A “management first” approach would seek to optimize the climate for human well-being. Here, the goal would be to respond prudently to the climate crisis given the political stalemates and ineffective regulations that have thus far prevented meaningful action. An ”ethics first” approach, by contrast, would seek to reposition politics and environmental regulations using norms that see humans as interdependent parts of Earth systems. From this perspective, reducing human impacts on planetary systems is the first step in recognizing our interdependence on Earth systems.

These two approaches are not mutually exclusive, but they present very different understandings of the human place on Earth and in the universe. Within the former, geoengineering represents the most recent iteration of what has been called the “emancipation project.” The project began several millennia ago with agriculture and the attempt to free ourselves from life as hunter/gathers. Paleoclimatologist William Ruddiman has argued that this was also the beginning of human-induced climate change.

A Land Rover expedition passes abandoned ships in the dried-up Aral Sea bed.

The goal of the emancipation project is threefold: (1) to emancipate ourselves from nature, (2) to emancipate ourselves from obligations to the earth's lesser peoples, principally the non-agriculturalists, and (3) to emancipate ourselves from our natural selves—in other words, to conform the self to the project of emancipation from nature and the domination of others. Since World War II, this project has focused on continuous economic growth and has required the creation of a global supply system and the substitution of consumers for citizens. This is the lens through which geoengineering should be viewed.

Technozoic approaches to understanding human-environment relationships have led us into the Anthropocene. Although the Anthropocene has been building for centuries, it was hastened and magnified by what has been described as the “Great Acceleration”—the massive increases in the extraction and use of natural resources to produce material wealth in the latter half of the twentieth century. These efforts were supported by ideas about individuals as rational and autonomous persons who were free to make individual economic choices and whose collective democratic choices established their political sovereignty. But throughout the twentieth century, we also learned precisely the opposite: individuals and human communities are part of ecological systems. We must ask whether technozoic practices and the ideas that support them fit with ecological understandings of humans as interdependent beings whose collective choices at once shape and depend on Earth's life-support systems.

The technozoic approach is undercutting its own future by destroying and destabilizing Earth's life-support systems. As Columbia University political theorist Timothy Mitchell has shown, fossil fuel energy, assumed to be inexhaustible, was thought to free the economy from material limits in the mid-twentieth century, and was used to support modern forms of democracy premised on indefinite growth. So much trust is now placed in economic models that computer programs currently drive global financial markets at rates faster than humans can respond to. When the economy falters, democracies that depend on this techno-political model declare that its institutions are “too big to fail.” But the assumption that “the economy” operates free of material constraints is false and has led to the degradation and destabilization of many of Earth's life-support systems. To maintain the technozoic project, a new language of “distributing risk” and determining “sacrifice zones” has arisen to describe how it is eroding its own foundation.

By contrast, an ecozoic approach rejects all three dimensions of the emancipation project. The human relationship to nature must be one of respect and reciprocity with the goal of a mutually enhancing humanEarth relationship. It requires that we recognize that many of those who do not accept the dominant model of “development” often have insights on how to live peacefully and respectfully on Earth. Respecting these alternatives requires a return to the idea of the person as a responsible citizen, not a consumer.

Hence, ecozoic approaches reject management techniques that seek to control natural or social diversity because they misunderstand ecological relationships among humans and between humans and Earth systems. They look instead for alternative ways of organizing human societies and human environment interactions wherein humans are members, not masters, in the community of life. This does not mean that we never use the planet, but it does mean that the earth and the rest of life on it are not conceived of as reservoirs for human gratification—a world of so-called natural resources. The entire technozoic form of life must be considered when making decisions about geoengineering because these planetary-scale decisions will affect other cultures, their rights to distinctive ways of life, and potentially all life on Earth, both now and into the future. So we must carefully weigh whether continuing in a business-as-usual, technozoic form of life should be maintained. We argue it should not, and offer the ecozoic as an alternative.

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