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The Anthropocene Age

Insights + Opinion

Dr. Vandana Shiva

We have moved out of the Holocene Age that began 10,000 years ago at the end of the Pleistocene. It comes from the greek words “holos” (whole) and “kainos” (new). This age provided the stable climate which gave us the conditions for our culture and material evolution as a human species.

Scientists are now saying we have entered a new age, the Anthropocene age, the age in which our species, the human, is becoming the most significant force on the planet. Current climate change and species extinction are driven by human activities and the very large ecological footprint of our species.

Climate catastrophes and extreme climate events are already taking lives—the floods in Thailand in 2011, in Pakistan and Ladakh in 2010, the forest fires in Russia, more frequent and intense cyclones and hurricanes, severe droughts and intense flooding are examples of how humans have destabilized the climate system of our self-regulated planet which has given us a stable climate for the past 10000 years. Humans have pushed 75 percent agricultural biodiversity to extinction because of industrial farming. Between 3 to 300 species are being pushed to extinction every day.

How the planet and human beings evolve into the future will depend on how we understand the human impact on the planet.

If we continue to understand our role in the old paradigm of capitalist patriarchy based on a mechanistic world view, an industrial, capital centered competitive economy, and a culture of dominance, violence, and war and ecological and human irresponsibility, we will witness the rapid unfolding of increasing climate catastrophe, species extinction economic collapse, and human injustice and inequality. This is the destructive Anthropocene of human arrogance and hubris. It is displayed in the attempt of scientists to do geo-engineering, genetic engineering and synthetic biology as technological fixes to climate crisis, the food crisis and the energy crisis. However, they will aggravate old problems and create new ones.

We have already seen this with genetic engineering which was supposed to increase food production but has failed to increase crop yields. It was supposed to reduce chemical use but has increased use of pesticides and herbicides. It was supposed to control weeds and pests, and it has instead created super weeds and super pests.

We are in the midst of an epic contest—the contest between the rights of Mother Earth, and rights of corporations and militarized states using obsolete world views and paradigms to accelerate the war against the planet and people.

This contest is between the laws of Gaia, and the laws of the market and warfare. It is a contest between wars against Planet Earth and peace with Earth.

There are planetary wars taking place with geo-engineering—creating artificial volcanoes, fertilizing the oceans with iron filings, putting reflectors in the sky to stop the sun from shining on the Earth, as if the sun was the problem, not man’s violence against the earth, and the arrogant ignorance in dealing with it.

In 1997, Edward Teller co-authored a white paper Prospects for Physics—based modulation of global change where he advocated the large scale introduction of metal particulates into the upper atmosphere to apply an effective “sunscreen.”

The Pentagon is looking to breed immortal synthetic organisms with the goal of eliminating “the randomness of natural evolutionary advancement.” What is being done with the climate is being done with the evolutionary code of the universe, with total indifference for the consequences.

Synthetic biology is an industry that creates “designer organisms to act as living factories.”

“With synthetic biology, hopes are that by building biological systems from the ground up, they can create biological systems that will function like computers or factories.”

The goal is to make biology easier to engineer using “bio bricks”—“Use of standardized parts, following a formalized design process, the engineers approach to biology, makes biology an engineering discipline, requiring the reduction of biological complexity. An engineering approach to biology based on the principles of standardization, decompiling and abstraction an a heavy reliance on information technologies.”

However, “engineering” plants and ecosystems has undesired and unpredictable ecological impacts. For example, the green revolution destroyed biodiversity, water resources, soil fertility, and even the atmosphere with 40 percent greenhouse gases coming from industrialized, globalised agriculture.

The second green revolution has led to emergence of super pests and super weeds, and increased use of herbicides and pesticides.

Synthetic biology as the third Green Revolution will appropriate the biomass of the poor, even while selling “artificial life.” There is an intense scramble for the earth’s resources and ownership of nature. Big oil, big pharma, big food, big seed companies are joining hands to appropriate biodiversity and biomass—the living carbon—to extend the age of fossil fuel and dead carbon. Corporations view the 75 percent biomass used by nature and local communities as “wasted.” They would like to appropriate the living wealth of the planet for making biofuels, chemicals, plastics. This will dispossess the poor of the very sources of their lives and livelihoods. The instruments for the new dispossession are technological tools of genetic engineering and synthetic biology and intellectual property rights.

Turning the living wealth of the planet into the property of corporations through patents is a recipe for deepening the poverty and ecological crisis. Biodiversity is our living commons—the basis of life and commons. We are part of nature, not her masters and owners. Intellectual Property Rights on life forms, living resources and living processes is an ethical, ecological and economic perversion. We need to recognize the rights of Mother Earth and therefore the intrinsic value of all her species and living processes.

The destructive Anthropocene is not the only future. We can have a shift in paradigm. A change in consciousness is already taking place across the world. We can look at the destructive impact our species has had on the planets biodiversity, ecosystems and climate systems and make a shift.

The ecological shift involves not seeing ourselves as outside the ecological web of life, as masters, conquerors and owners of the earths resources. It means seeing ourselves as members of the earth family, with responsibility to care for other species and life on earth in all its diversity, from the tiniest microbe to the largest mammal. It creates the imperative to live, produce and consume within ecological limits and within our share of ecological space, without encroaching on the rights of other species and other people.

It is a shift that recognizes that science has already made—a paradigm shift from separation to non-separability and interconnectedness, from the mechanistic and reductionist to the relational and holistic.

At the economic level it involves going beyond the artificial and even false categories of perpetual economic growth, so called free trade, consumerism and competitiveness. It means shifting to a focus on planetary and human well being, to living economies, to living well, not having more, to valuing cooperation rather than competitiveness. These are the shifts being made by indigenous communities, peasants, women and young people in the new movements like the Indignants in Europe and the Occupy Wall Street in the U.S.

This involves working as co-creators and co-producers with the earth. This demands using our intelligence to conserve and heal, not conquer and wound. This is the creative and constructive Anthropocene of Earth Democracy, based on ecological humility in place of arrogance, and ecological responsibility in place of careless and blind exercise of power, control and violence. For humans to protect life on earth and their own future we need to become deeply conscious of the Rights of Mother Earth, our duties towards her, our compassion for all her beings. Our world has been structured by capitalist patriarchy around fictions and abstractions like “capital,” “corporations,” “growth” which have allowed the unleashing of the negative forces of the destructive Anthropocene. We need to get grounded again—in the earth, her diversity, her living processes and now unleash the positive forces of a creative Anthropocene.

We will either make peace with the earth or face extinction as humans even while we push millions of other species to extinction. Continuing the war against the earth is not an intelligent option.

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The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.

"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.

"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."

The billions of dollars spent to rebuild the Jersey Shore and to create dunes to protect from future storms after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 may be a waste if sea level rise inundates the entire coastline.

"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."

Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.

Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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