Welcome to the Anthropocene

Today I read this thoughtful blog post by David Roberts of Grist, Welcome to the Anthropocene, about how we humans for the first time in history have the power (good and bad) to affect the Earth. It argues that:

The Anthropocene represents a shift in perspective that goes beyond the political or economic. It is ethical, ontological, even existential. The full implications won’t be clear for many years. We are still denying it or negotiating with it or trying to squeeze it into conventional categories. It will be for our children to fully come to terms with it — and, unfortunately, to suffer for our failure of imagination.

This made me think back on a very constructive Twitter discussion (regarding growth and climate change) I had a while ago. There we ended up asking whether previous generations were less selfish and more willing to make sacrifices for the sake of future generations.

I tend to think so. But I also think that it was easier for previous generations to make choices that seemed right at the time.  And if there were any side-effects, these could be fixed.

To illustrate what I mean, consider waste handling over time:

  1. First we just put waste in big piles where we lived
  2. When we learned that this could have health hazards, we dug it down in dumps
  3. When we learned that they would leak and contaminate water, we started to recycle and seal the remains
  4. And now we are digging up the dumps again to harvest metals and other scarce resources.

But an important point to add, is that all in this example happens locally. Waste problems were local. And could be fixed locally. And are thus reversible.

In the age of the anthropocene, our actions have (collectively) global consequences. Consequences that may be irreversible, so also affecting future generations.  What we are currently trying to come to terms with, is that our responsibility expands similarly. If not legally, then at least morally. With more knowledge, comes more responsibility. Where previous generations could say ‘we did not know’, we cannot.

So, I tend to agree with David Roberts. And I continue to ponder how I personally can live up to that responsibility. (A prior reflection here, in Danish.)


*: Anthropocene means a geological era characterized by the influence of a single species. Humans, in this case.

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