“Anthropocene” is a term used as a chronological geological marker to show the extent to which humanity has had an effect on the natural environment of our planet. It’s an informal term, but one that I believe encapsulates much of what environmentalists and scientists have been saying for some time about human activities, and the extent to which we have been shaping our environment. Unlike the “Pleistocene” epoch, in which humanity evolved to its current state, and during which external and internal natural forces were the only ones effecting the climate and environment, this is the first era where a single species is the driving force in the shaping of the planet’s ecosystems. Anthropocene also indicates that not only are we shaping the planet, but that the changes we have wrought are irreversible and irrevocable. The implications of this are staggering for the planet, but it is not all doom and gloom.
We are deep in the Anthropocene epoch, and the evidence is all around us. Not a single part of the planet has been spared from the changes we as a species have brought upon it. Cities, towns, rural environments, great plains of monocultures, plantations grown for timber, open-cut mines, airports and the skies above our heads, all have been changed by human activity. Even in the densest jungle, the highest mountains, in the deepest ocean, we see traces of human activity. Human activity has contributed not only to climate change, pollution, the acidification of the world’s oceans and so on, but much of the world’s forests have been shaped by our activities to suit our needs rather than being its own closed off environment.
Apart from the obvious effects humanity has had on the planet, there are many examples which are taken for granted or overlooked, but are no less examples of humanity shaping the natural environment.
Take for example the alpine high country which inhabits much of the east of the state of Victoria here in Australia. On a recent trip there, one where we were hoping we could escape humanity for the most part, we went deep into some of the harshest and least touched areas of this state. A five hour drive, much of which was on dirt roads, each getting smaller and rougher than the last, was what it took for us to remove ourselves from society, even if only for a short time. Once we’d arrived, and packed up our provisions and sleeping equipment, we still had a two and a half hour hike into the dense scrub before us on a marked track to a remote campsite up in the wilderness.
In this remote place one could believe that this was an example of an environment where man had little effect, after all, the trees are untouched by human hands, the plants and animals all carry on their normal activities, and the river runs clean and clear through the valley. The river here was clean enough to contain edible fish, and many people actually come to this place on fly-fishing expeditions, hoping to catch a feed of fresh and wild mountain trout. Sounds pretty natural to me, however there are a few things that could not be if not for humanity’s impact on even this environment.
For example, the track into this place is man made, either by repeated use by hikers, or maintained by the local park rangers. The campsite, though beautiful, was cleared by humans, and while it is modest in size, would never have existed if not for humanity’s perceived need to be here. The trees were recovering from bush fires that tore through this region in 2006/2007, and the intensity of these fires was exacerbated by human’s controlling of the natural occurring fires upon which the ecosystem relies to reproduce and flourish. Most of all, the prized mountain trout that many take the long journey for, is an introduced species, not native to Australia at all, and maintained by the state government in an attempt to placate the wants of the state’s anglers.
As well as the species that have been introduced intentionally, while walking along the tracks, it’s impossible to miss the presence of dandelion flowers, grasses, thistles and blackberry bushes, all introduced species, and many of which have been tracked into the bush in the form of seeds on the soles of boots of hikers. The introduction of horses and cattle to the region has added to the amount of infiltration of these alien species to this otherwise pristine area, the livestock leaving seeds of wheat and other grasses in their excrement, which later germinated and spread.
On a larger scale, the fact that this environment exists at all is a decision by humanity, for if it were more usable land, such as an open and arable field, it would be used for agriculture. Being as it is, high, rough and rocky, it is of little practical use to humanity in a utilitarian sense. So the borders of this land, it has been decided, are to be “protected”, and only usable by humanity as a refuge to which to retreat on a vacation. Of course these wildlife sanctuaries serve as environmental refuges to assist with the biodiversity of the planet as a whole, but we have decided where they are, and they are few and far between.
Australia is a special case on a world scale, as much of it is either unusable by humanity for agriculture, or is uninhabitable. As much as 80% of Australia’s population lives on 5% of the land, in a thin strip which hugs the huge coastline. The remainder is mostly desert (which as it turns out we have found a use for in mining), or to a lesser degree, rugged mountains whose only immediate use to us is as biodiversity pools. On a global scale, much of the Australian environment has by contrast been left reasonably untouched.
On another hiking trip, this time to Hinchinbrook Island in Far North Queensland, I had many of the same thoughts. It is a true island, in that it is separated from the coast by water, and is only a couple of kilometres away from an industrial township that deals mostly with the harvesting and transportation of sugar cane. The island itself is reasonably pristine, except for the walking trails, signage, campsites and the occasional piece of man-made sea-borne rubbish, but again, this island was chosen to be a sanctuary, and would otherwise be a tourist resort or town. It’s saving grace is that it has ones of the highest biodiversities of any area in Australia, and this was recognised before the government would inevitably cave to the interests of other humans and it would no doubt be developed, like much of the rest of the tropical Queensland coast and islands in the area. Also to its advantage is the fact that much of the island is either high rocky peaks, or impenetrable mangrove forest, making it difficult to develop for tourism.
If one were to look at the way we have used the resources and land of this planet, one could almost see it as a literalist interpretation of the dominionist biblical scriptures pertaining to using (and in many cases, exhausting) the god-given planet’s natural resources for the betterment of humanity. People like Calvin E. Beisner, and his evangelical anti-environmental group The Cornwall Alliance, make claims that any and all attempts to retain and preserve the remaining environment against use by humanity is actually the work of the devil, and in going against the words of the bible are to be fought against. This dominionist idea is that since god put the planet here “for humanity to use” then it is our obligation to do so until it all runs out. (They also make claims that not only is climate change not true, but that humanity has no part in making it occur.) Of course, this would signal the biblical apocalypse, and all the faithful consumers would be whisked away to heaven, while all those that actively seek to protect the environment are sent to hell to sit beside Hitler and Pol Pot, roasting for all eternity. But of course, all rhetoric aside, there are larger players in this game, some of the most powerful and richest companies in the world, and of course, they stand to profit from the use of the earth’s remaining resources, particularly coal, gas, and oil. (The Cornwall Alliance may in fact be a religious front for some of these interests, but these claims are difficult to confirm). The dominionist viewpoint is truly shocking, and one that, even without it’s religious overtones, is anti-human and anti-environment.
Even if the claims by The Cornwall Alliance and others of their ilk were true, and mankind is in no way contributing to climate change, there is no denying that the Anthropocene is indeed upon us. Humanity has made innumerable changes to the environment of this planet, and climate aside, these kinds of attitudes are not only unhelpful, but are in themselves harmful to all of humanity. These changes are destructive, and to say that a god has not only given us permission, but demands that we us up all of earth’s resources, is the unconscionable and disingenuous, to say the least. Religious interests and beliefs have no place in these decisions.
In recent years, many have begun attempting to help bring the remaining areas of natural environment back to a state similar to that which existed before humanity forever changed it. This is a positive step, as it can lead to areas of greater biodiversity in pockets of forest and waterways in and around our cities, but it is still an example of the Anthropocene. Humans have made the decision to change the environment back to whatever it was previously, and although it is much harder to change environments back to their previous state, and although it is fraught with difficulties, it remains an example of humanity altering the state of the environment, albeit in this case as a reaction to the changes we have already made. These efforts at reforestation are difficult to get going, and just as difficult to maintain, but they are key to reestablishing wildlife areas to our urbanised world. There’s no denying that this kind of revegetation works, too.
A small example is my very own back yard. When we moved to our current home, the yard was a windswept concrete and grass slab, punctuated by three garden sheds. Six years later we have established a self-sustaining native garden section which not only attracts native wildlife such as birds, lizards and insects, but maintains itself much like the native bushland in the mountains does. In addition to this, the reintroduction of tall trees means that the yard is no longer wind-swept, but quite sheltered from the strong and drying summer winds. It’s not the same as a the wide plains of scrubby forest that once inhabited this area before the advent of white-man to Australia, and it could never become that again, but it’s a micro-climate that didn’t exist before, and one I have created from a blank canvas. We also see this kind of reforestation along our local creek, where local residents volunteer their time to help reestablish the kind of bushland that once occupied that land, and it has brought with it a self-occurring reintroduction of native animal species, including marsupials, snakes, birds, insects, lizards and frogs.
These small-scale reactions to the effects of the Anthropocene epoch are small, disparate and almost tokenistic on a global scale, but the reactions themselves are a global phenomenon. All over the world we see these kinds of environmental initiatives, and, with any luck, these kinds of actions will help to strike some kind of balance between our need to feed ourselves (which will be a huge challenge in the coming century as the global population continues to grow), and our need to survive on the only planet we know of which can sustain our lives.
Once we come to terms with the Anthropocene as a real and current phenomenon, we can then start to reevaluate our place in this world, rethink what can be done to aid the environment, and introduce measures to protect what is left of the natural forests. If we deny our impacts upon the environment, then there is nothing left for us but the barren future-wasteland of the dominionists.