It’s a new day and age, long in the coming: Our impacts have reached levels where it makes sense to speak of a new geologic epoch characterized by those our impacts, an ‘anthropocene.’ Our thinking – let alone doing – still needs to catch up with its implications.
Our influence shapes the world’s large-scale ecosystems, which would otherwise depend mainly on climatic and soil conditions, to such an extent that we don’t usually see biomes anymore; what we find are ‘anthromes.’
It is as it has been, for we humans tend to change our environments to serve our needs better than they would ‘naturally’ do, and we have been doing so to a large extent ever since the rise and spread of agriculture and civilization.
The level of influence is new, however. The challenges this raises have been somewhat recognizable for a long time (and often raised in warning calls), but our views of the world haven’t caught up to this reality.
Too many voices claim that we have technologically progressed so far, we should just take the reins of the world and drive headlong into the future of our own making. Why care about climate change(s) when you have an AC and heating, and we could just geo-engineer the planet to our liking?
Except, it’s not right. We’re still very much dependent on the ecological functioning of this our planet, wont to suffer from extreme events and less stable climates. We are only too good at using our ecological capital for short-term gain and comfort, and caught in illusions of a limitless world that is just a static stage for our plays for power and profit. We can’t even control our own waistlines, but we are told that we’d just control the earth system.
Too many opposing voices, however, are still caught up in thinking that we are nothing but destructive of the wild nature that would be everywhere. Really, though, it is cultural landscapes, ecosystems and bioregions strongly dominated by our doings, that are everywhere, have been for a while, and are often the nature that is more diverse than it would otherwise be and that seems only natural to us now.
Protecting species, conserving wilderness, interesting and noble as it can be, is simply too little in this world of ours, in and of itself. Too little to protect ourselves, and too little even to protect the few species we tend to be focused on.
Rather than having destroyed it all, we have developed cultural landscapes, from rice terraces to forest plantations, from meadows to urban concrete jungles, from loose settlements to industrial installations. And the challenge is not to protect a nature somewhere else and keep it safe from our encroachment.
“The first rule of an intelligent tinkerer is to keep all of the pieces.”
The challenge is to make all our environments, the rather natural-looking as well as those that seem made of nothing but steel and glass, finally work as ecological systems that are functioning, at the very least for us, and preferably also diverse and working for and with other species (and not just the ones we particularly like, either).
Stockholm Resilience Centre TV has an excellent introductory look at that, regarding urbanization:
We know enough, but just enough, to make our lives and situations better by co-creatively working with and as parts of ecosystems, whether ‘natural,’ agricultural or urban – and it is in the change to such approaches to our ways of living that we can open up futures, expand possibilities, and support human potential.
Many still believe that this implies stasis – and it certainly does require less thoughtless, heedless growth for its own sake.
However, it also means, and even requires, dynamic creativity. When you can’t just extract whatever profit you want, where and as you find it, and then move on to pastures that are greener because they haven’t yet been destroyed, the alternative that works is not stasis.
It is systems of management and co-creation that lead to greater productivity, but one that is not siphoned off to be stored in far-away bank accounts, but one that does what it should – produce ecosystem services, create livelihoods, and, perhaps most important of all, cycle back to keep itself going.
It’s not a perpetuum mobile, it certainly isn’t the impossible dream of never-ending growth on a finite planet, but it is simply the reality of cultural ecosystems that work, because people work with them, with creativity, dynamism – and humbleness.
It’s even, rather than a backwards orientation, a perspective that looks far forward: How else would humans “colonize space” than by creating the “local” and functioning ecosystems to take with them?