This blog is mostly about the queen of all social problems, climate change, yet it is important to keep in mind that climate change is only one, though arguably a central, part of the broader issue of global environmental change.
This point should be rather obvious by now, but the idea that humans are now the dominant force changing planet Earth is an important conceptual innovation. This claim was made and documented in 1997 by Stanford biologist Peter M. Vitousek in a hugely influential Science article, Human Domination of Earth’s Ecosystems. The term Anthropocene — the human epoch — was coined by Nobelist Paul J. Crutzen in 2000.
The conceptual innovation is important because it highlights an important aspect of our environmental crisis that appears to be very difficult for human beings to understand except on a very shallow level: we are really changing the planet in profound ways. Modern cultures seem view the environment as something remote that is out there, not the life-support system that we all depend on.
As a result, decision-makers discount environmental megatrends. If one could trace the origins of these immense changes to an evil human being — perhaps a terrorist leader residing in a foreign country — our leaders would declare a state of emergency and use any amount of resources to solve the problem right. While we understand our current condition on some abstract level, we are somehow unable to grasp the essence of the problem and treat it in a rational fashion.
To overcome this intellectual flaw is a gargantuan challenge, and having spent a good part of the day reading and writing about the politics of nuclear power in Finland, I am not feeling overly optimistic today. Nonetheless, concepts such as the anthropocene or human dominance of ecosystems may help by virtue of being fundamentally irreconcilable with the modern cultural view of the environment.
My favorite application of this reasoning is the idea that there is something inherently valuable in closing production systems, so that an industrial unit — possibly very broadly defined, depending on the context — produces very low amounts of pollution and waste.
According to textbook economics, this idea does not have any inherent value. Instead, societies should (i) carefully calculate the costs and benefits of pollution and waste and then (ii) use economic instruments, such as taxes, to correct the market failure.
But if we believe that the burden that we put on the global environment is immense, then we cannot calculate the costs and benefits of pollution and waste. It would be laughable to claim that we understand how the biosphere works, so we are left with choosing between (i) somewhat arbitrarily specifying the goal of closing certain production and consumption systems and (ii) running the risk of triggering global dynamics that we are unable to control.
To be sure, I am not advocating that societies begin to categorically proscribe pollution and waste. I am fully aware of the fact that some environmental destruction is unavoidable if we are to maintain decent standards of living for our current population (I am not going to digress into the population question here). But there is a world of difference between treating environmental destruction as yet another simple policy problem and committing to solving the global environmental crisis by closing our production and consumption systems as soon as possible.
Recently, scientists have made some progress towards dealing with this problem (at least on a theoretical level). In 2009, Johan Rockström and colleagues published an innovative article in Nature, proposing “a safe operating space for humanity” by identifying ten major environmental issues — from climate change to biodiversity loss and freshwater use — and proposing a threshold of interference (annual loss of species, carbon dioxide emissinons, etc) above which we are in a dangerous territory. They then proposed a safe boundary that is well below the critical threshold. The bad news is that we are already beyond the boundary for climate change, biodiversity loss, and the amount of nitrogen that we remove from the atmosphere.
These thresholds and boundaries are undoubtedly controversial and will greatly change over time, as different scholars weigh in (that’s how science works). But the idea of recognizing key factors that seem to shape the biosphere and proposing a relatively safe boundary that is well below the critical threshold for great danger is a sound one. Sure, it is neither an optimal yardstick for public policy nor completely fail-safe, but it is a simple decision tool for those of us enjoy the privilege and carry the burden of living in the anthropocene.
PS. This post has very little politics in it. As a political scientist, I am usually not inclined towards giving policy advice to the world — in case you haven’t noticed, the world is not an actor in its own right. But ultimately, any policy advice that I (or anyone else) can give is frivolous unless it is somehow grounded in a normatively appealing goal. The great scholarship that centers on the notion of anthropocene helps dream big.