Island Press, 2014, pbk 248 pp,
Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain
This book was written to warn us of a real and present danger. It is a danger so recently emerged that that many of us are not even aware of it yet. That is the danger that those very people whose job it is to safeguard the interests of wild Nature—the conservationists and environmental specialists—may end up doing precisely the opposite.
Although the geological definition of the epoch we’ve been living in for the last almost twelve thousand years (since the end of the Pleistocene) is the Holocene, it has been widely speculated that the geologists of the future, noticing significant markers in the fossil record, will re-label this later section of it the ‘Anthropocene.’ Fair enough. Humans have had such a noticeable impact on the planet that this is not an unreasonable designation.
What is unreasonable, alarming, dangerous and downright abhorrent is the attempted conversion of the Anthropocene concept by a small group of conservationists from a geological suggestion into an evolutionary imperative—much to the gleeful delight of industry of course. Basically it says that we have made so many changes to the planet that it’s ours now and we, rather than Nature, are going to be in charge from now on.
So anthropocentrism, instead of gradually going away as so many of us have hoped, is sneaking in again by the back door. As this book points out, the people letting it in are not the familiar enemy i.e. the thoughtless exploiters of the Earth who rip the tops of mountains and drill the Arctic. The danger is coming from people we thought were on our side—on the side of Gaia. It is coming from a small bunch of people who are billing themselves as the ‘new environmentalists’ (also known as ‘Anthropocene-boosters’). Wolves in sheep’s clothing.
The worry is, of course, that too many of today’s—and tomorrow’s—decision-makers will get seduced by their breezy, optimistic rhetoric because it purports to offer a way out of despair. (‘Never mind about the mess we’ve made of the planet. Here’s the way we are going to fix it.’) This could speed the adoption of a hard-nosed pragmatic agenda that dismisses the concept of intrinsic value as romantic nonsense and sets about calculating what each species of plants and animals is worth (to humans) in dollars or pounds and putting a price on wind and water, sunshine and butterflies. Whenever you hear Nature’s generous gifts being referred to as ‘ecosystem services’ you will know you’ve encountered this syndrome. There are, of course, no prizes for guessing how many thousands of life forms will be designated worthless and left to go extinct as result of this sort of thinking. But that’s just collateral damage…
Some of the people whose thinking is trending this way are well-placed and thus potentially influential. For example the chief scientist of one of America’s largest environmental groups—the Nature Conservancy, which has over a million supporters—believes that conservation’s task is no longer, “…to preserve the wild but to domesticate nature more wisely.” We are the gods now. We can turn the planet into a human-made garden, tailored specifically to the needs of humans, since there are now so many of us. (Except that the people talking this way conveniently omit all mention of overpopulation or the sheer inability of the planet to sustain us if we don’t all reduce our consumption drastically and soon.)
These Anthropocene-boosters not only omit such important elements as those but they support their argument with bad science, woolly thinking, half-truths, misrepresentation, ad hominem sling-offs, misunderstanding of history, postmodernist arrogance and downright lies. Fortunately, their arguments are not hard to demolish. And the 27 highly-qualified and well-respected contributors to this anthology do an excellent and very thorough job of doing just that.
However it is not enough to leave it to them. We all need to read this book and become fully aware of the dangers it describes. We need to familiarise ourselves with all the arguments these writers have so clearly and thoroughly articulated if we are to have any hope of countering the insidious Anthropocene trend before it gets any further entrenched. It’s a hydra whose heads we must efficiently and quickly sever as fast as they appear. As one of the contributors (Ned Hettinger) warns: We should not get comfortable with the Anthropocene as some have suggested but rather fight it. Such comfort is not the virtue of reconciliation but the vice of capitulation.