From Atom to Atmosphere

IMG_0807The short essays that will appear on this page are designed to help with some big choices. They concern decisions that, if we don’t make them ourselves, will be made for us by technologists, entrepreneurs, and the marketplace. These decisions are about what sort of world we want to inhabit, decisions demanded by the unprecedented powers to transform nature we are gaining.

Synthetic biology, gene drives, climate engineering, nanotechnology and similar innovations promise huge benefits to humanity. At the same time, they stand on the cusp of reworking Earth’s most basic operations for our species’ purposes. With these technologies, we are about to re-plumb the planet’s metabolism. This reworking will make all the impacts humanity has created so far look superficial and cosmetic. Think of the difference between getting a haircut and getting gastric bypass surgery. Now think of that difference applied to the planet. If we sleep through the coming decades, emerging technologies will replace the natural world with “Nature 2.0.” Parts of this new version of nature may even get trademarked.

At the turn of the last millennium, a Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist and a distinguished marine ecologist coined a new word for the time in which humanity now live. The chosen term, the Anthropocene, was designed to characterize an age in which the signatures of human activity can be found anywhere you look on the globe. According to these two experts, human influence is not only complete, it is happening on a scale that matches the scale at which nature herself creates change. Dams pool enough water to change the Earth’s spin, bulldozers move more rock and soil than erosion, the Haber-Bosch process removes nitrogen from the atmosphere faster all the world’s plants and bacteria combined. To cap this, biodiversity is being wiped off the map at rates reminiscent of the five mass extinctions written into the geological record.

Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer’s new word has a felicitous ring and it captures something about our species’ incredible power that people find compelling. The Anthropocene has quickly become a fashionable new cultural handle, one so popular that it has been copied by those interested in praising or critiquing other global phenomena (viz. “capitalocene,” “manthropocene,” or “Trumpocene”).

But what Crutzen and Stoermer got wrong is that making an unholy mess of a planet hardly warrants commemoration with an honorific name. Even worse than the bad taste is the presumption about the future. We do not know yet where we will head from here. We may give up on the natural world and enter a wholly synthetic age. Or…..there may be an alternative.

If the future articulated by some Anthropocene thinkers is an entirely synthetic one, an alternative vision lies in the restorative impulse currently sweeping parts of the world. From the Carpathian Mountains, to Montana’s Blackfeet Reservation, to the pastoral landscapes of southern England, tribes, environmental organizations and determined individuals envision a future in which wild animals and spontaneous, natural processes make a return to the landscape. By restoring rivers to their natural courses and flood regimes, by reintroducing bison and removing fences, and by encouraging successional processes to take place without human interference landscapes are getting pieced back together in such a way that people are no longer calling all the shots. The land is starting to teem again with unpredictable wild happenings that surprise and delight. Adaptation, competition, and suitable conditions for evolutionary processes are returning and reasserting themselves in the forms they took for hundreds of millions of years before humans started to take control of them.

As someone born and raised in a picture-postcard corner of England planted with arable crops and grazed by hundreds of sheep, I understand intuitively what it is for nature to be shaped by the human hand. The landscapes I roamed in my youth inevitably bore a human trace and lacked almost all their sheltering forests and fiercer critters. After moving to Colorado in my twenties to study environmental philosophy, I became entranced by rock, river, and woodlands that seemed wilder and somehow more real than those back home. The fact that, in my English mind, a mountain lion might lurk behind every Colorado bush added both invigorating froth and calming eddies to my bloodstream. IMG_0830Over time, I pushed further north to Alaska where I encountered brown bears, whales, and puffins inhabiting bays headed by tidewater glaciers. The ancient processes that gave the Earth its shape seemed to be still happening right before my eyes. It was little surprise that I settled in Montana where wolverine still haunt the high country and elk steaks fill my friends’ freezers in the fall.

To hear that even these big landscapes are impacted by the Anthropocene jolts me. The inevitability of human influence should not be shocking to a European mind, yet it still sits uncomfortably within mine. It is telling to learn that the movement to re-wild a peopled world is most advanced in European countries. Jackals returning to the Balkans in numbers not seen since the Iron Age, wolves repopulating Italy’s Apennine mountains, and lynx on the way to being restored to Britain’s Kielder Forest where they have not stalked fawns since 600 A.D., these happenings all point to a startling shift in course.

Whether we proceed with engineering the Earth at deeper and deeper levels or decide to withdraw from certain places and diminish our impacts is yet to be decided. One thing we do know is that it will be up to us to determine how to shape the world we inhabit. The epoch of accidentally influencing the planet is over. What lies ahead will be conscious and deliberate.

With ever more invasive technologies pushing inwards from one direction and resurgent wildlands pushing outwards in another, we currently occupy a thinking space. We have the chance to decide what sort of world we want, to determine the kind of future we would like to shape. Will the planet be reworked from atom to atmosphere into something artificial? Or can we take it upon ourselves to salvage, and perhaps even restore, a semblance of a still natural and still wild world? Can we follow a less sloppy and less humanized direction where nature gains the opportunity to thrive?

Both futures are possible. And so is a future with a little bit of each. The questions to explore, and the questions I will be pursuing in the entries ahead, are about what shape we want for the epoch that might appropriately be called “The Plastocene.”

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