“The Anthropocene concept in ecology and conservation”

Corlett, R.T. 2015. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 30, pp. 36 – 41.
The term ‘Anthropocene’ was first used in the year 2000 to refer to the current time period in which human impacts are at least as important as natural processes. It is currently being considered as a potential geological epoch, following on from the Holocene. While most environmental scientists accept that many key environmental parameters are now outside their Holocene ranges, there is no agreement on when the Anthropocene started, with plausible dates ranging from the Late Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions to the recent globalization of industrial impacts. In ecology, the Anthropocene concept has focused attention on human-dominated habitats and novel ecosystems, while in conservation biology it has sparked a divisive debate on the continued relevance of the traditional biocentric aims.

How is the Anthropocene viewed by biologists? While there are many negative views from the conservation biology community, some of the discussion has not yet reached the whole field. This article by Corlett summarizes the discussion and highlights a number of important questions.

After debating whether technically the Anthropocene has actually begun (an inconsequential point for most practical purposes), Corlett discusses the consequences of the rise of the Anthropocene for the field of Ecology. First, he argues that in a rapidly and globally changing world, core ecological assumptions will have to be revisited, especially in the field of Island Biogeography. He then points out that “conservation can no longer focus on preserving and restoring ecosystems of the past” and that human influenced systems and natural systems can not be treated as separate anymore. Corlett makes an interesting point about the different histories of the conservation movements in Europe and the US. Acceptance of the new situation seems easier in Europe, where “almost all landscapes were altered centuries ago” and pristine, natural landscapes are very limited. This is clearly different in the US and this difference seems to fuel a lot of the controversial discussion we have witnessed lately about conservation in the Anthropocene.

Corlett finishes his thoughts by pointing to the human dimension of the Anthropocene. This should be a given, provided the name, but is sometimes a bit ignored by biologists. Consequently, there is a dire need for translational research bringing together natural scientists with social scientists and the humanities. In this sense the Anthropocene is an important research opportunity, but at the same time a critical situation we need to respond to. The most powerful statement about this comes towards the end of the paper when Corlett points to the moral dimension of our approach to the Anthropocene. He simply points out that we choose which Anthropocene will actually happen.

Michael A. Ellis and Zev Trachtenberg. 2014. “Which Anthropocene is it to be? Beyond geology to a moral and public discourse.” Earth’s Future, 2, pp. 122-125. DOI: 10.1002/2013EF000191. Corlett cites this article, which argues that policy choices, driven by values, can affect the course of the Anthropocene.
J.L. Heinen-Kay, et al. 2014. “A tradeoff between natural and sexual selection underlies diversification of a sexual signal.” Behavioral Ecology. DOI: 10.1093/beheco/aru228. Suggests a biological effect of the Anthropocene by arguing that habitat fragmentation caused by humans can drive the early stages of speciation.
 Michelle Marvier. 2014. “New Conservation Is True Conservation.” Conservation Biology, 28, pp. 1–3.  DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12206. Presents Marvier’s position in, and an overview of, the debate over the “new conservation.”

5 thoughts on ““The Anthropocene concept in ecology and conservation”

  1. This sounds like a very interesting article, Ingo, and I look forward to reading it. One question I have for you is about this difference you mention between Europe and the Americas (in terms of the relative natural-ness or anthropogenic-ness of landscapes). Do you see this as a misperception that makes it harder to deal with the Anthropocene in the US context? Or, if it’s not a misperception, how do we measure the relative naturalness of American landscapes, particularly when many of them have appeared natural (i.e., not anthropogenic) because so many of the humans who shaped them in pre-Columbian times were killed by epidemic disease or relocated?

  2. Noah, this is one of the key questions! What is natural? I don’t think we have a good, or even universally accepted answer for this. When we compare habitats we can use intuition: a city park is clearly less natural than primary rainforest in the Amazon. Has even the primary rainforest been influenced by humans in some way? Probably.
    And how real is the difference between the US and Europe in responding to the Anthropocene? This might actually have to do with the areas perceived as pristine when the Conservation movements in Europe and the US developed. I think this is what Corlett referred to, but this would be an interesting question for a Historian of Science.

    • Thanks, Ingo, for the response! What do you think of the proposal by Latour and others who have argued for abandoning the concept of nature all together? Their point is not that everything is anthropogenic (even though almost everything is now impacted by humans), but rather that the idea of nature exceptionalizes humans and too readily becomes a moral yardstick (i.e., natural=purity/perfection, human=corruption/degradation) that often leads to undesirable environmental or social outcomes. As long as we have “nature,” they argue, we can arbitrarily exclude some social practices as “unnatural” and use the protection of nature as justification for sacrifice zones on the one hand and fortress conservation on the other.

  3. Noah, I’m not familiar with Latour’s work, but it sounds interesting. Can you post some background on this? I think this might touch on a lot of different aspects of the discussion: when we try to protect nature, is this mainly or only for humans? Can we protect nature for its own sake? Would that include the virus causing AIDS? And how is this related to the fruitless discussion of what is nature and what is nurture? You made me curious…..

    • Thank you, Ingo, for engaging with me on this! I know (or at least I imagine) how busy you are nowadays. I can’t offer a full explanation of Latour’s ideas here, but I will send you a chapter from his book Politics of Nature, and I promise to write a post sooner or later about why Latour and others see “nature” as such a problematic idea. Zev also wrote a “What We’re Reading” post on Steven Vogel’s essay “Why ‘Nature’ Has No Place in Environmental Philosophy.” Vogel’s concerns are not identical with Latour’s, but they are generally convergent.

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