The Anthropocene- From “The Economist”- Prophetic or Heretical?

Here’s Anthopocene the essay.

We had an interesting conversation about this piece at work and what it means to the “protected area”- roadless or wilderness- question. What happens when “what you can’t do” in protected areas is to respond to climate change? What happens when “letting things alone” or “what used to be” are not our targets- what should our conceptual moorings be in a shifting world?

 It is one of those moments where a scientific realisation, like Copernicus grasping that the Earth goes round the sun, could fundamentally change people’s view of things far beyond science. It means more than rewriting some textbooks. It means thinking afresh about the relationship between people and their world and acting accordingly.

Thinking afresh is the easier bit. Too many natural scientists embrace the comforting assumption that nature can be studied, indeed should be studied, in isolation from the human world, with people as mere observers. Many environmentalists—especially those in the American tradition inspired by Henry David Thoreau—believe that “in wilderness is the preservation of the world”. But the wilderness, for good or ill, is increasingly irrelevant.

Almost 90% of the world’s plant activity, by some estimates, is to be found in ecosystems where humans play a significant role. Although farms have changed the world for millennia, the Anthropocene advent of fossil fuels, scientific breeding and, most of all, artificial nitrogen fertiliser has vastly increased agriculture’s power. The relevance of wilderness to our world has shrunk in the face of this onslaught. The sheer amount of biomass now walking around the planet in the form of humans and livestock handily outweighs that of all other large animals. The world’s ecosystems are dominated by an increasingly homogenous and limited suite of cosmopolitan crops, livestock and creatures that get on well in environments dominated by humans. Creatures less useful or adaptable get short shrift: the extinction rate is running far higher than during normal geological periods.
Some will want simply to put the clock back. But returning to the way things were is neither realistic nor morally tenable. A planet that could soon be supporting as many as 10 billion human beings has to work differently from the one that held 1 billion people, mostly peasants, 200 years ago. The challenge of the Anthropocene is to use human ingenuity to set things up so that the planet can accomplish its 21st-century task.


  1. Thanks, Les. In searching for the quote using Google, I did find a number of misquotes. Makes me not believe the quotation websites.
    This seems to be the correct version.

    The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild, and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the World. Every tree sends its fibers forth in search of the Wild. The cities import it at any price. Men plow and sail for it. From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind. .

    . .

    From this quote it sounds like more utilitarian kind of wild- but we have to think about what these ideas meant in Thoreau’s time and place.

  2. Economist’s Religious Absurdities and other pertinent facts the office discussion might have Economissed:

    (First) If “heretical or prophetic” are our only choices here, it would only be logical to address the form of religious worship this rather brief, largely unsupported, illusory article represents.

    The worship of money has always gone hand in hand with denialism, especially, the denial of natural laws, which is precisely at the center of our planetary predicament. There too, will always be those whose jobs created the problem to aspire to “fix” it through inspired “management”.

    (After all, managers do seem to get very concerned about that which they’re not allowed to manage.)

    This article is then an explicable choice, that it would be used in an attempt to downplay the predicament created by human’s worship of money, management arrogance, willful ignorance, and lust for power. Now the new improved business models can get down to the task of profiting in the name of achieving “resiliency” for all. (uh-huh, this follows precisely the rhetorical strategy of neoliberal/ libertarian/ free marketeers such as Alan Greenspan, et al. who blithely admit their economic strategy hasn’t worked so well, in part because they couldn’t do what they REALLY wanted to do. We just need to trust the architects of planetary collapse to be able to fix everything by just “thinking afresh”, a bit.)

    There’s some other priceless, if not absurdly comical quotes to work with here such as:

    “Who is to say that human action might not tip the planet into new instability?”


    “An example of (ways of increasing resiliency of the planet) could be geoengineering.”(never mind the fact that “managers” (money and otherwise) ignorantly playing god is precisely how we got into this mess.)

    “Prophetic or heretical are our only choices?
    How about cluelessly anthropocentric and terminally unteachable?

    And “people as mere observers” ? Please, we’re not talking observing sitcoms here, we’re talking observing life (the most elemental questions of which, we are particularly clueless about,) having evolved over hundreds of millions of years into complex, dynamic interrelationships with other life forms, and nonliving elements and processes.

    How about the realization there is nothing “mere” about observing, especially when that which one observes has so much value in what it has to teach? Perhaps what it has to teach could be essential to planetary survival? Perhaps we already know how to avoid collapse but can’t fit it into a business model?

    Thoreau was clearly the prophet here, while the Economissed spells it differently: profit.

  3. Since we cannot isolate nature from humans, we should not try to isolate humans from nature, either. The mindset that nature is, or was, untarnished by humans is not very accurate. The idea of “letting nature take its course” is ridiculous when applied to today’s over-the-brink forests. It is unsustainable to think that we can continue to support vast dead forests, without significant adverse environmental effects. Is today’s megafire near Four Corners going to be “acceptable losses” in the war against “forest greed”? How many more “unlikely” wildfires will burn this summer, causing evacuations, habitat losses, water quality effects, archeological damage, public health issues and resource loss?

    I hope you find that magic wand, David. I really hope you do.

  4. I do not see any conflict between forest conservation and climate adaptation. There are several self-correcting mechanisms in natural forest ecosystems that will help forests adapt to climate change in a timely way.

    One of those self-correcting features is the process of mortality. Tress die, for instance when they are stressed by drought induced by climate change, or when forests affected by disturbances such as insects and fire that may be exacerbated by climate change. When mortality occurs it does several things – it recruits much needed dead wood habitat into the system, and it makes more space and resources available for surviving vegetation or new vegetation. Dead wood also has a buffering function with respect to microclimate, habitat, and by capturing-storing-releasing water, nutrients (including carbon), and sediment.

    It is important to recognize that not all mortality occurs in catastrophic events. For example, common drought stress can thin a forest stand “from below” by causing mortality in the younger trees that have relatively shallow roots, thus helping older trees with deeper roots survive.
    • When mortality rates are low it indicates that that current vegetation still matches the climate and there is some dead wood habitat recruited to mitigate for the general shortage of dead wood across the managed forest landscape.
    • When mortality rates are moderate it indicates a possible mismatch between the current vegetation and the climate, but with more trees dying more resources are being made available which increases the vigor and resilience of surviving trees.
    • When mortality rates are high (e.g. large fire and beetle events) it indicates a likely vegetation/climate mismatch but these mortality events also make available lots of space and resources for new vegetation that better matches the new climate.

    Many conifer trees are ancient species with genomes that have persisted through wide climatic variation in the past. Trees may have the ability to reallocate resources, devoting less resources to wood growth, instead devoting more resources to basic survival, such as defensive compounds that it can use to defend itself from insects.

    Another self-correcting mechanism results from CO2 enrichment of the atmosphere which increases the water use efficiency of some plant species and makes them more tolerant of and resilient to drought. Carbon in the form of CO2 is a major plant nutrient, but in order to capture CO2 plants must open pores in their leaves called stomata. When the stomata are open, plants unavoidably lose significant amounts of water. With 30% more CO2 in the atmosphere since industrialization (390 ppm now, 280 ppm pre-industrial), plants are now able to get the CO2 they need while keeping their stomata closed for longer periods during the growing season, so they lose less water in the process of capturing the same amount of carbon. Warmer temperatures will still stress plants, but there is at least a mitigating effect from CO2 enrichment.

  5. Doug-

    Thanks for bringing up the world of conifer genetics. There are many wonderful things that conifers due to adapt to changing climatic conditions, including pollen competition and embryonic competition. Conifers will probably be on the planet long after us.

    This also reminds me of the time when I was a young Forest Service geneticist. We used to review areas for seed orchards by looking at the history of cone production. I remember in south-central Oregon many places where in many or most years of ponderosa reproduction, the stroboli were victims of frost, either the females the first year or the pollen, or both. We always wondered if those trees were still adapted to a warmer past. With a long generation time in forest trees, it could be that many stands of trees have no individauls that are perfectly adapted to the current climate.

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