Looking Back From the Anthropocene

As the Anthropocene unfolds and becomes more manifest, will its inhabitants look back and blame their predecessors on Earth (us, and perhaps earlier generations as well) for bequeathing them a planet not fit for the kind of lives they would like to live? Some conversations I’ve been having lately, and also Asa’s post on the article “Futurologists Look Back,” have got me thinking about this question; this post collects some initial ideas about it (uninformed by much reading I should add—so comments on appropriate articles much appreciated).

At the outset, let me acknowledge a point that has emerged strongly on this blog (e.g. here)—it is a mistake to talk about humanity as a single, undifferentiated group. Across the globe (and across most societies) different groups of people make uneven contributions to the processes driving the Anthropocene, and suffer uneven impacts (or enjoy uneven benefits). I whole-heartedly acknowledge this point; indeed I think that justice is the fundamental moral category to be used in thinking about the Anthropocene. But in this post I want to explore a different point, which requires a huge abstraction. I will, in effect, create a model, populated by people in more or less the same position as myself. I think this is acceptable for the problem at hand, which is to consider how even a more or less homogenous group of people (who can even be assumed to have some concern about their environment) can pass on a significantly worsened environment to their future.

So, let’s consider a period of a few hundred years in this model world, in which there is a gradual process of human modification of the landscape leading to what, from our perspective, is a horribly degraded environment. We would say that that future lacks things in the natural world that we take to be of immense value (either instrumental or intrinsic), and in virtue of that absence the prospects for a genuinely fulfilling human life are substantially diminished. However, suppose that the people living in that future are satisfied with their environment. They think of themselves as having good lives—maybe even better lives than previous generations: for example, they might think that the technology they have is more rewarding than natural phenomena that are now lost. From our perspective, that belief might be the worst thing about their condition.

How could this sort of thing happen? Circumstances have changed, but rather than rejecting their new conditions people have adapted to them. Let me consider some possible dynamics that might explain the phenomenon.

The first is the apocryphal story of the frog in a pot—where the water starts out at room temperature, but is heated so slowly that the frog never notices when it eventually boils. (This is not what actually happens—the frog will in fact jump out.) The dynamic here might be that if the rate of change of the water temperature is below a certain threshold the frog literally is unable to detect change, hence does not experience the stimulus (increased temperature) that would provoke a response (jumping out of the pot).

However, it seems implausible to think that once the water temperature got uncomfortably high the frog wouldn’t notice that fact. So let’s explore a different dynamic. Say that the frog is adapted to a given range of water temperatures—(a ± n)°. Thus, if temperature rises n°, the frog will feel uncomfortable and respond. But if temperature rises m° (where m<n), the frog will accept that situation, and not respond. But further, let’s assume that after a certain period, the frog adapts to the new temperature ((a+m)° —call it b°), i.e. b° becomes a new baseline, and any further temperature change within n° will be not provoke a response . . . and so on. In other words, we can imagine a ratcheting phenomenon—not of steady but unnoticed increases in temperature, but rather of stepwise increases punctuated by periods of adaptation. The key here is that the increases are relatively small—forestalling any reactions that would be prompted by increases outside the given range (here, ± n°). Leaving the frog behind and returning to our model population, we recognize that a change in circumstances that people would reject if it happened too quickly would be accepted if it happened sufficiently slowly. The people at the end of the process would be satisfied with conditions that the people at the beginning of the process would reject as unacceptable.

We can refine this second dynamic a bit, in line with the account Rousseau gives in the Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, which I’ve argued previously on this blog can be read as explaining in a very general way the origin of the Anthropocene. In that account human beings start as hardy individualists whose sense of what they need to survive is adjusted to what they have ready to hand in their environment. Gradually, however, they become socialized and settled, losing their original vigor and strength, and find themselves unable to fulfill even their basic needs without goods provided by the social system. More importantly, they develop new needs based on their membership in society—needs prompted by an underlying general need to be held in high esteem by others—which cannot be supplied except by status goods. This leads to bitter and generalized conflict: Rousseau’s version of the Hobbesean “war of all against all.”

Rousseau’s account can help us understand the process of adaptation we just analyzed. For, he notes, people can’t simply escape the disastrous condition of war by abandoning society and going back to nature: “men thus harassed and depraved were no longer capable of retracing their steps or renouncing the fatal acquisitions they had made” (Discourse on Inequality, Part II). Socialized human beings are not the same creatures as they were before: adaptation here means they are dependent on the goods provided by the very system which has produced the social (and environmental) changes that are making their lives miserable. In Rousseau’s account people are in effect trapped in society. However, they do not think of this as being trapped, since the basis of their self-esteem is now social status.

I have suggested that the world Rousseau describes is, in effect, the ur-Anthropocene—it is the “post-natural” landscape shaped by human activity. Let me end by using his account to frame a question at the heart of this post. The process of adaptation Rousseau describes produces two points of view—one associated with the beginning of the process, and one with the end. From the point of view of the past the people in the future lead degraded lives; from the point of view of the future the past was impoverished and uncivilized. Each position regards the other as fundamentally mistaken in its own self-assessment. Is there a way of deciding which is correct? For Rousseau the answer is unequivocal: he endorses the point of view of the past, by associating it with nature. I myself am unconvinced by that association, but I recognize that he has at least attempted to justify his choice between perspectives. In future posts I hope to explore whether there is some conception of habitability that might serve a similar normative function.

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