ORIGINAL DRAFT of Op-Ed: Stop Trying to Save the Planet
April 10, 2009
Nature Doesn’t Matter Anymore
An essay on how humans have created a new nature and how and why we can keep creating it over the long term.
Nature is gone. Gone before you were born- gone before your parents were born- before the pilgrims arrived, before the pyramids were built. You are living on a used planet.
If this bothers you, get over it. It’s time to face the facts and move on. We now live in the Anthropocene- a geological epoch in which earth’s atmosphere, lithosphere and biosphere are shaped primarily by human forces. Yes- nature is still around, back-seat driving, annoying us with natural disasters from time to time, and everywhere present in the background. But definitely in no position to take the wheel- that’s our job now. Don’t blame nature for global warming, sea level rise, invasive species, mass extinctions, crop failures and poverty. That’s our thing.
This is a story and a manifesto about what society needs to learn from recent scientific efforts to explain changes in greenhouse gases and the biosphere during the Holocene, earth’s latest geological epoch (the time since the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago). As my colleague Kees Klein-Goldewijk put it: Holocene = Anthropocene.
Three lines of evidence demonstrate that we live on a planet reshaped by humans for thousands of years. The first evidence is old- dating to the beginnings of science itself, when amateur scientists, including Thomas Jefferson, stumbled across the bones of massive and long-extinct mammals like the mastodon, giant ground sloth and saber-toothed tiger. Explaining their disappearance 10,000 years ago as a response to the last glaciation cannot explain how they survived the many preceding glaciations. Current theory therefore holds that prehistoric hunters drove these and many other species to extinction- at the beginning of the Holocene in the Americas, and earlier in some regions. While a few human-driven extinctions might seem like just a sad footnote to history, it is far more than that- species that humans have tended to eliminate by hunting and habitat alteration (mostly by fire early on) are keystone species- species whose lifestyles, like those of elephants in Africa today, tend to profoundly shape and sustain ecosystem form and function by their feeding habits. Nature just hasn’t been the same since well-armed prehistoric hunters came on the scene more than 10,000 years ago.
And what of the pristine wild forests of Amazonia and North America? Think again. Evidence is growing from archaeology, paleoecology and even epidemiology, that humans lived all over these lands and burned down their forests millennia before Columbus, first to enhance their hunting for wild species attracted to the regrowth and later for agriculture. That these lands seemed wild to early Europeans is readily explained by the dense vegetation that soon covers the relics of many a failed civilization in the Tropics (Angkor Wat?), and by the rapid decimation of native populations across huge regions by epidemics of old world diseases brought by the first Europeans. While probably never cleared in their entirety, areas long believed to be the wildest places on earth are almost certainly still recovering from human alterations that are evident in earthworks, artifacts, anthropogenic charcoal and in the sediment record. Scientists are faced with the growing recognition that areas long considered wild, when closely observed, are not.
Finally, the geologic evidence. About seven thousand years ago, greenhouse gases in the atmosphere - carbon dioxide and methane- began to rise in a pattern differing from that of every similar interglacial period- in which greenhouse gases fell throughout (there are at least 7 of these prior to the Holocene). To explain this, palaeoclimatologist Bill Ruddiman formulated the “early anthropogenic hypothesis”, which holds that land clearing and flooding for rice production by prehistoric farmers 8000 years ago were the source of these gases. While this hypotheses still ruffles the feathers of many a climatologist, there remains no better evidence explaining the Holocene greenhouse gas anomaly. It is even possible that global warming caused by prehistoric farmers has delayed the onset of the next ice age (it is due about now). So we humans have been warming the planet long before we ever burned fossil fuels. The industrial revolution merely shifted us from first gear into fourth gear in a single go.
So there you have it- Earth is a used planet. Thanks to us, Earth has been warmer, less forested and less biodiverse for millennia.
So what now? First of all, we’ve got to stop “saving the planet”. For better or for worse, Nature has long been what we have made it and what we will make it. So please, no more talk of saving nature. It is our nature already.
And it’s time for a “Postnatural” environmentalism. Postnaturalism is not about recycling your garbage, it is about making something good out of grandpas garbage and leaving the very best garbage for your children. Postnaturalism means loving and embracing our human nature, the nature we have created to feed ourselves, the nature we live in. What good is environmentalism if it makes you depressed about the future? We should all be congratulating India on producing its first car- we should all drive Tata Nanos at 56 miles to the gallon (though better to walk or bike if you can!). This is about recognizing that our farms and even our backyards and cities are the most important wildlife refuges in the world and should be managed as such. We can keep people out of places we want to think of as wild- but these places will still be changing because of global warming and the alien species we introduce without even trying. If we want these places to look like they did before us, we will have to constantly recreate them. It will be a huge job for us humans to keep nature “wild”.
It’s high time we saved ourselves. And not from Nature either. It’s true that prehistory is littered with the remains of failed civilizations, but Homo sapiens is not going away. Indeed, we humans can totally trash the planet and still survive- we already have in many ways. Don’t like it? Stop trashing it! Use renewable energy! Clean it up. Repair it. Get to work. There is plenty more mileage left in this spaceship earth. Think about it while enjoying a trip to your local zoo or arboretum- the most biodiverse places that ever existed on earth.