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You Are Here: Welcome to the Anthropocene

Summer 2019 was the hottest on record. How many people care?

John Baker/UnSplash
Source: John Baker/UnSplash

What is the Anthropocene? It's “the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment” (Lexico Dictionary).

The anthropocene is now. Since the Industrial Revolution, humans have invented more and more means of producing and releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This past summer was the hottest on record in the Northern Hemisphere (Freedman, 2019).

The facts: Ambient temperatures and oceanic temperatures are rising, and their warming has multiple climate and meteorological impacts, such as intensification of tropical storms and extremes in weather (e.g., droughts and massive forest fires in one part of the U.S. and record-breaking flooding in another at the same time). Glaciers internationally are melting at a far faster pace than predicted, with one disappearing in Iceland in August 2019 (Kamur, 2019), commemorated with a plaque. Deforestation in the Amazon has increased 278% from July 2018 to July 2019 (Specktor, 2019), mostly due to deliberate fire setting by landowners clearing the land to make way for pastures for the grazing of cattle (Yeung & Alvarado, 2019). Good job.

In another sign of global climate change, it was announced September 20, 2019 that in the last 50 years, North America has lost 29% of its bird population, or 3 billion. When one considers the roles birds play in flower pollination and balancing the population of various insects, this, too, is not good news.

These events are dutifully archived by eminent scientists and are facts with which many informed persons may be familiar. But as I type these words, I can see persons stuck in their “information silos” dismissing scientific reports about global climate change as hokum, hoax, or overblown alarmism. Others adopt a defeatist position of “It's too late” and “we’re doomed,” and still others welcome the end as a fulfillment of religious texts that refer to end days, and happily engage in self-fulfilling personal and apocalyptic prophecies.

But when one types out evidence of what is really happening to our planet, it brings a more visceral, frightening reality into tight focus: That we in the Anthropocene are systematically making it ever more difficult, even impossible, for millions of other species, as well as our own, to survive. Three contributors to our poor showing in responding to the current ecological crisis are: (1) ignorance of climate science, (2) fear-based messaging overwhelming and paralyzing audiences (see Stevenson & Peterson, 2016), and (3) the linear epistemologies ensconced in our scientific paradigms. Regarding this last contributor, what we don’t know can get us into trouble, and what we know for sure, that just ain’t so, leads us to catastrophe.

Our greatest enemy is bad thinking. Linguist and visual anthropologist Gregory Bateson saw the world as a series of interconnected systems, operating at three levels: the individual, society and ecosystem. Feedback loops regulate these systems, which are highly adaptive and balance themselves via homeostasis. But Bateson was concerned that human beings had split themselves off, by deliberate design, from other natural systems, including their environment.

Bateson held that the destruction or collapse of societies and the environment stems from the human tendency to overreach and attempt to wield a kind of autocratic control over systems that are actually self-regulating. Even scientific thinking was a contributor to this problem in that all phenomena tended to be seen in terms of a series of cause-and-effect linear relationships. Bateson cautioned that most of us are “governed by epistemologies that we know to be wrong.” Many humans believe that the resources of the world are infinite, or that if eating something is good for you then more and more of it is even better. There is no reflexive, meta stance on our own process of thought and perception, so we don’t see or reflect on these errors in epistemology, because we tend to not look for evidence of them. So our thinking processes and models are not self-correcting, and a non-evolving epistemology does not allow for increased wisdom in thought and action.

Tyler B./UnSplash
Viewpoint is everything.
Source: Tyler B./UnSplash

Essentially, humans were in error when they lost a sense of aesthetic unity during the Renaissance (Gutierrez, 1987). Without unity, and without seeing the ecological connections among all living systems, a false epistemology takes root, and disconnection from nature leads to an attempted dominance over it, leading to terrible consequences. In the field of family systems therapy, Auerswald (1971, 1985) contended that the epistemology dominating modern society stemmed from a Newtonian, linear, mechanistic paradigm giving users a proclivity for fragmenting reality into separate, manageable, but unfortunately unrelated parts. This echoed Bateson’s ideas of disconnection, a lack of wholism, and the inability to see “the pattern that connects.”

Chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall concurs: “Isn’t it peculiar that this most intellectual creature to ever walk the planet is destroying its only home? It seems to me there is a disconnect between the clever, clever brain and the human heart” (Reutter, 2017). Addressing deficits in education also referred to in Bateson’s writings, Goodall created a service project to give young folks hope for the future. Now in 60 countries, Roots and Shoots sees a holistic connection between people, animals, and the environment, and allows young persons to choose the project they wish to take on to make the earth a better place:

"You choose what to do, because of what is important to you, because of where you are, because of who you are… This amazing human brain. We can use it to do good. We always need it to do good. We can use it to harm, but the human brain is capable of finding ways for us to live in greater harmony with nature, as a society and as individuals" (Reutter, 2017).

So what do we choose to do? Like the fable of Emperor Nero, playing the violin while Rome burned, our planet grows ever hotter and we sit and debate about the exact percentage of the human contribution to the phenomenon, rejecting the Green Deal and other proposals as ‘utter madness,’ and eating our popcorn watching SharkNado 5 and laughing about how dumb it all is. But the joke is really on us. My next post: "Disaster Porn, In Two Forms."

References

Auerswald, E.H. (1971). Families, change, and the ecological approach. Family Process, 7(2), 202-215.

Auerswald, E.H. (1985). Thinking about thinking in family therapy. Family Process, 24, 1-12.

Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an ecology of mind. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Bateson, G. (1979). Mind and nature: A necessary unity. New York: E.P. Dutton.

Freedman, A. (2019). The Northern Hemisphere just had its warmest summer on record. Retrieved September 24, 2019 at https://www.washingtonpost.com/weather/2019/09/16/northern-hemisphere-j…

Gutierrez, D. (1987). Subject-object relations in Wordsworth and Lawrence. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

Kamur, H. (August 19, 2019). Scientists bid farewell to the first Icelandic glacier lost to climate change. If more melt, it can be disastrous. Retrieved August 19, 2019 at https://www.cnn.com/2019/08/18/health/glaciers-melting-climate-change-t…

Reutter, H. (2017). Goodall: Why Earth’s most intellectual creature is destroying its only home. Retrieved August 28, 2019 at https://www.theindependent.com/news/local/goodall-why-earth-s-most-inte…

Specktor, B. (2019). Amazon deforestation shot up by 278% last month, satellite data show. Retrieved August 21, 2019 at https://www.livescience.com/66120-amazon-rainforest-deforestation-bolso…

Stevenson, K. & Peterson, N. (2016). Motivating action through fostering climate change hope and concern and avoiding despair among adolescents. Sustainability, 8(6), 1-10. Retrieved September 3 2019 at http://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/8/1/6/pdf

Yeung, J. & Alvarado, A. (2019). Brazil’s Amazon rainforest is burning at a record rate, research center says. Retrieved August 21, 2019 at https://www.cnn.com/2019/08/21/americas/amazon-rainforest-fire-intl-hnk…

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