Stranger than fiction: The Anthropocene is upon us

by Betsy Herbert

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 05/15/14

Last weekend, I was one of hundreds attending the international conference, Anthropocene: Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, at UC Santa Cruz. The primary question driving the conference was "How can humans and other species coexist on the planet?" I came away, I think, with a better understanding of how humans, as brainy as we claim to be, have managed to get ourselves and other Earth inhabitants in such a pickle — with climate change, mass extinction, and accumulation of pesticides in our food and water systems.

I also came away believing that we must acknowledge how we got into this mess before we can make the changes in old ways of thinking and interacting with the world — changes needed to reverse the trend.

Apparently, human civilization has wreaked so much havoc on planet Earth in a relatively short time that increasingly, scientists worldwide are recognizing this period as a new geologic epoch named the Anthropocene to address human disturbance of the Earth's ecosystems and its resulting challenges.

Conceived by UC Santa Cruz anthropologist Anna Tsing, and presented by UCSC's anthropology department and Denmark's Aarhus University, the conference featured visionaries including science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin and environmental historian William Cronon, from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

"If we want to address the massive environmental challenges of our times, we must do a better job of noticing who lives with us on human-disturbed landscapes, and under what conditions," Tsing said.

Le Guin, keynote speaker, is widely recognized for challenging society to imagine new ways of interacting with the environment. In an April 29 interview she said, "We continue doing all of the things that we know are destroying the world. ... We have, as they say, already passed peak oil. ... We certainly passed a comfortable population peak quite a while ago."

One of the major impacts of the Anthropocene is the ongoing worldwide extinction crisis, which is presently occurring at 10,000 times the background rate. Biologist Jens-Christian Svenning from Aarhus University explained that sometime between 10,000 and 70,000 years ago, elephants were found on every continent except Australia and the Arctic. When large megafauna like elephants are lost from a landscape, the loss reverberates throughout the ecosystem, starting with the vegetation. That, in turn, can impact the water cycle and other ecosystem functions that humans depend on.

UC Santa Cruz plant ecologist Ingrid Parker pointed out that humans mistakenly tend to assume that everything in nature is now pretty much the same as it was before, and that it will continue pretty much the same into the future. For example, she said that about 90 percent of the plants in the coastal grasslands, which most of us think of as "native," were introduced by Europeans. Before European settlement, Parker said that scientists don't know what plants actually populated today's coastal grasslands.

"We need to understand what is not there," Parker said, referring to the implications of species loss. She explained how diminished populations of the local sea otter resulted in a proliferation of sea urchins, a food source of the sea otter. That, in turn, resulted in a loss of kelp forests, a food source of the sea urchin.

William Cronon emphasized the importance of storytelling by humans in shaping the way we think about ourselves and the way we relate to landscapes and to the world. These individual stories in turn link to the bigger story of the Anthropocene, which, it seems, is in dire need of editing. "We need stories that invite empathy and compassion rather than the reification of destruction and violence," said Cronon.