Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Anthropocene Dreams

Last weekend, as we experienced one of the hottest Memorial Day holidays in recent memory, I found a little time to read a fascinating issue of The Economist that featured a cover story entitled “Welcome to the Anthropocene.” It was the first time I have encountered this term though it has apparently been batted around within the scientific community (particularly in geology) since 2000.

In brief,
a growing body of scientists both within geology and in other disciplines are coming to the conclusion that we are no longer living in the Holocene geologic period. Instead, we have entered a new period with amazing swiftness where human beings are no longer the passive victims and observers of environmental processes. Due primarily to our active participation in the carbon-cycle and the nitrogen-cycle, humanity now shapes the workings of vast ecological systems. The Gaia Principle is now married to (or perhaps in contention with) the human footprint upon the earthly engine of creation itself.

The article contributed to the recipe of an idea I have noodled on for awhile. That recipe includes the
“note to self” post last month regarding the pace of technological change and equating that with a book I have queued up to read in the near future entitled The 10,000 Year Explosion along with other books and articles in my collection on the topic of the acceleration of human evolution. Another ingredient is the recent publication of Rush, which sings widely-accepted praises to the competitive forces driving the process of acceleration. I see this whole debate on the Anthropocene as part of a multi-faceted puzzle, still disjoined, that appears to form the image of a great and turbulent spiritual landscape.

As I attempt to muddle through the meaning of these scattered fragments, I find myself conflicted about the possibilities of such deliberations. On the one hand, I’ve been interested in
Transhumanism for many years. The Transhuman reality certainly has much in common with the Anthropocene mentality. It is the death of the gods and the rising of humankind to its rightful place as controller of its own destiny, as master of self and nature.

But, there is a disquieting side to all this too. Human control over traditionally natural processes (there are more trees growing in tree farms on the planet today than there are growing in the wilderness, for example), the pace of technology out-stripping the means by which human beings can relate to and find meaning in technology and its impact upon the pace of human evolution itself – all of these things I find provocative. Of course, if the future is
Transhuman then it is inherently provocative, so what do I expect when new ideas such as the cover story in the latest Economist slap me in the face?

The simple fact is how I personally feel about these processes and forces acting within and upon the human realm is largely inconsequential. I have to admit that there are powerful arguments supporting such a state of affairs. My private heroes such as Thoreau and Tolkien and many others would find all this ominous and, perhaps, even evil. I try not to reduce what I consider to be clear metaphysical forces to a simple flatland of darkness and light. I try to objectively understand what is happening and why without regard to how I feel about it because that seems truly meaningless in terms of what is happening in the Now. I get no vote. I didn’t even know
the Arthropocene was a concept until a few days ago.

It all makes
perfect sense, however – to quote a bit of Roger Waters cynicism and sarcasm. According to The Economist there is “no turning back” to some pristine Eden. What we have here is truly a “revolution” in the way of looking at things and acting as humans. A few quotes from the main article: “The Anthropocene is different. 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.”

“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.”

“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.”

“Increasing the planet’s resilience will probably involve a few dramatic changes and a lot of fiddling. An example of the former could be geoengineering. Human interference in the nitrogen cycle has made far more nitrogen available to plants and animals; it has done much less to help the planet deal with all that nitrogen when they have finished with it. Instead we suffer ever more coastal “dead zones” overrun by nitrogen-fed algal blooms.”

“For many of those promoting the idea of
the Anthropocene, further geoengineering may now be in order, this time on the carbon front. Left to themselves, carbon-dioxide levels in the atmosphere are expected to remain high for 1,000 years—more, if emissions continue to go up through this century. It is increasingly common to hear climate scientists arguing that this means things should not be left to themselves—that the goal of the 21st century should be not just to stop the amount of carbon in the atmosphere increasing, but to start actively decreasing it. This might be done in part by growing forests and enriching soils, but it might also need more high-tech interventions, such as burning newly grown plant matter in power stations and pumping the resulting carbon dioxide into aquifers below the surface, or scrubbing the air with newly contrived chemical-engineering plants, or intervening in ocean chemistry in ways that would increase the sea’s appetite for the air’s carbon.”

The carbon and nitrogen cycles are not the limits of human participation. In fact, given that technology is largely moving on while dropping plenty of humanity to the wayside, there may well be no limits on what humanity and technology will do to the planet. It seems to me that the greatest casualty in any of this is going to be the original, pristine concept of Gaia itself. Are we witness to the raping and pillaging of Gaia? Are we watching the marriage of Gaia and humanity? Questions of this type are presently unanswerable though worthy of consideration.

For me, however, one thing is certain. This is
the workings of karma on a vast scale, far beyond anything I’ve heretofore considered. So, I add this to the mix of musings that are currently in play in my thoughts and emotions. I find the whole Anthropocene debate simultaneously fascinating and menacing, which I suppose is the essence of our postmodern condition. The future is already here, we make critical choices without even understanding all our options, and we pass along a heritage of occurrences without decision. Karma drives inexorably on, changeable perhaps in myself and others, but unrelenting in its consequences on the geologic scale.

The possibilities, however, are not reducible to a competitive dialectic. As The Economist sums it all up as: “…the most fundamental change in Earth history that
the Anthropocene marks: the emergence of a form of intelligence that allows new ways of being to be imagined and, through co-operation and innovation, to be achieved. The lessons of science, from Copernicus to Darwin, encourage people to dismiss such special pleading. So do all manner of cultural warnings, from the hubris around which Greek tragedies are built to the lamentation of King David’s preacher: ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity…the Earth abideth for ever…and there is no new thing under the sun.’ But the lamentation of vanity can be false modesty. On a planetary scale, intelligence is something genuinely new and powerful. Through the domestication of plants and animals intelligence has remade the living environment. Through industry it has disrupted the key biogeochemical cycles. For good or ill, it will do yet more.”

Nevertheless, the quote speaks of "cooperation" and "innovation," the possibility that "new ways of being" are "imagined and achieved." Those certainly aren't threatening terms. Could it really be that childlike? That we all see things clearly and we all get along? Might be a bit of a stretch, but it feels good to think of the change in this way.

There’s an old song by
R.E.M., one of my favorite contemporary bands, entitled “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).” That’s the proper perspective, as tricky as it might be for me to adopt as of this posting. I am unsure if Nietzsche would have seen the Anthropocene as part of the birth of the Ubermensch. But, he might. It is not only a question worth pondering but a rather exciting existential moment as well. Perhaps this is another step on the path toward the Transhuman, which in itself is partly influenced by Nietzsche’s lifework. Regardless, it increasingly looks like the top monkeys are running the weather report. The forecast is partly sunny with a chance of late-afternoon techno-intercession.

More musings on
the Anthropocene as I incorporate it with other things simmering for future posts.

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