Redefining the Anthropocene

Twilight in the Mojave. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

For the past decade, there has been a raging debate among conservationists over how best for humanity to interact with nature to create a better future. Here, I will argue that defining our current era as the Anthropocene epoch, in which the mark of human impact has reached every corner of the globe, has led to a dichotomy in which we must choose — to either restore the Earth toward natural, functioning ecosystems, or else become the ultimately-skilled gardeners who manipulate every aspect of nature — as the basis for conservation. Perhaps the resulting internal schism in the conservation world is based on a faulty or incomplete definition of the Anthropocene that unhelpfully distorts our view of our relationship with nature as through wavy glass, and prevents us from seeing that obvious problems and solutions are right under noses, and have been all along.

Many scientists and conservationists argue that we should do our utmost to prevent artificially-caused extinctions, which collectively are causing a Sixth Mass Extinction far more rapid than previous ones from the fossil record, with human failures as the cause. Other researchers contend that we can do more good by protecting healthy ecosystems, rather than focusing on individual species. The reality is that individual species protection, and broader habitat protection, are two equally necessary sides of the same conservation coin. Doing one in no way precludes pursuing the other; in fact, if you’re doing it intelligently, there is synergy in pursuing both at the same time. That’s what E.O. Wilson was driving at when he advocated for saving half the Earth in a natural state, to solve (or at least slow) the Biodiversity Crisis. Saving ecosystems is absolutely necessary to provide habitats required by individual species, and saving species is essential for maintaining healthy and functioning ecosystems, which fall apart in unpredictable ways when their component parts are removed. Single-species and ecosystem-based conservation methods aren’t contradictory; they’re two essential sides of the same coin.

The more fundamental schism lies between those who see value in conserving and restoring wild, self-willed nature, and those who are bent on human domination and control. Only the former can legitimately call themselves conservationists, but the latter don’t even deserve to be called pseudo-conservationists. They are dominionists, and their guiding principle is that humanity ought to control everything, including natural processes.

It has been these dominionists, led by Peter Kareiva of the Nature Conservancy, self-appointed “new conservationists,” who are seizing on the Anthropocene concept to conclude that because human imprints can be detected in every corner of the globe, we should give up on conserving native species, functioning ecosystems, and natural processes. Instead they posit that we should all accept a human-dominated world that accommodates a handful of generalist species that adapt well to human-dominated landscapes. The reach of human influence on nature leads to their conclusion that the natural world is all but doomed, and that we should all give up on preserving it in a natural state. The Anthropocene is thus transformed into an acceptable Manifest Destiny for humankind, which sabotages conservation efforts worldwide.

In the Anthropocene, nature has been relegated to a disturbance-mediated disclimax, a weedy existence in the cracks of the pavement and the trash heaps that accumulate in the back alleys. For dominionists, this outcome is not just acceptable but preferable: Humans can focus on satiating our boundless appetitites for wealth and consumption, and can stop worrying about and feeling guilty for the damage we are causing to the planet and all its other inhabitants. It’s the ecological equivalent of the “greed is good” economics of the Reagan era.

Those economics never trickled down to raise the standard of living for the working class, just as the call to embrace working landscapes and abandon of the conservation of wild nature will never sustain healthy natural systems. The systems, by the way, that humanity itself depends upon for our own survival.

I propose a new definition of the Anthropocene, as the age in which humanity has become not only recklessly out of balance with nature but also an overwhelming negative force of ecological destruction. It’s not where our spoor can be detected, but the relationship we have with nature, that is centrally important. This definition of the Anthropocene then points immediately to a unifying conservation imperative to back away from a toxic, parasitic relationship to nature and the Earth, and instead return our society to a healthy, productive, and mutualistic balance in which natural ecosystems, and the species that depend on them, can thrive.

By recognizing the Anthropocene as the period where humankind has gotten out of balance with nature, we redefine the problem: It’s not that nature isn’t resilient enough, it’s that humanity no longer possesses the willpower to coexist with a wild planet.

It’s our fault, as a species. All of it. One hundred percent. The Biodiversity Crisis. The destruction of natural ecosystems. The Climate Crisis. That’s where humanity, with our monomania for economic growth and exploitation of natural resources, is right now as a species. We need an intervention, and the only one who’s going to provide it for us is ourselves.

The good news is, we have rafts of science that inform not only the problems we’re causing, but also what the natural world requires of us in order to successfully coexist. We can wean our economy off climate-disrupting fossil fuels. We can protect 30% of lands and seas as wild, native ecosystems by 2030, and be well on our way to protecting 50% by 2050. We can develop more sustainable practices on intensively-inhabited and cultivated landscapes to give native species a foothold there, too. Recognizing the Anthropocene Epoch as the period in which humanity exists in a state of ecological imbalance gives us the proper incentive to do what we need to do next: Move past the Anthropocene as rapidly as possible, and into a new epoch where a stable climate, abundant biodiversity, and healthy native ecosystems predominate the world over.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and is the Laramie, Wyoming-based Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting and restoring watersheds and wildlife on western public lands.