Bertrand Laurent, January 18, 2022
Since Andrew Revkin, the renowned environmental journalist, introduced the concept of an Anthropocene Epoch in 1992, it has been under healthy debate among geologists, environmentalists, and biologists. The Anthropocene is a period of time defined by the impact of humans, primarily as measured by extinction of species, pollution, and ecological imbalance caused by humans.
But many geologists point out that in order to meet the criteria, distinctive signs need to be detectable in the geological record, which they claim is not (yet) the case for the Anthropocene.
The argument is that even though human-caused extinctions have taken place for thousands of years, human impact on a high, global, level has been a factor only since the Industrial Revolution.
This isn’t entirely true. Human geological impact is certainly indicated by the presence of lead-metal isotopes in arctic ice cores traceable to Roman smelting dating from 2,000 years ago, and more recently by the presence of cesium 137 and plutonium 240 levels in Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and parts of New Mexico due to nuclear explosions. And on the biological level, even though a comprehensive cumulative measure of human-caused extinctions has not yet been developed, there has certainly been a long history of it. Some examples include the human-caused extinctions of the Aepyornis (Elephant bird) on Madagascar in AD 1,000, of the Dodo bird on nearby Mauritius in the late 1600’s, of the North American migratory passenger pigeon in the early 1900’s, of Thylacinus cynocephalus (the “Tasmanian wolf”) in the 1930’s, the St Helena Island Nesiota elliptica (St Helena olive tree) in 2002, and countless other species of plants, insects and animals.
Humans have always been vulnerable to the environment but have almost always found strategies to either evade, withstand or adjust to the effects of that vulnerability. These strategies have involved learning how to live with the natural forces and plant and animal species in systems we call “human society” and which include our technologies, laws, institutions, and cultures. As an anthropologist seeking to better understand and improve human society, I’ve come upon a much better understanding of what the Anthropocene is. Rather than define the Anthropocene as an age in which humans have a dominant impact on the planet than any other species, it would better be defined as the age during which human communities were cognizant of our collective ability to change that impact, i.e. our ability to incorporate the physical and biological world into our conceptualization of human society, or governance. This Cognizant Definition of the Anthropocene is a central theme in my book, Who Put the Devil Into the Pig (not yet published). My position is that any justification for naming the current age after ourselves should be based on our conscious recognition of the significance of our impact. Central to the Cognizant Definition of the Anthropocene is our awareness of the impact we are making on the planet, and our conscious ability to make decisions about it. In other words, the Cognizant Definition of the Anthropocene refers not simply to the impact of humans on the planet, but by our awareness of that impact, and especially by our ability to mitigate it.
Several societies have already begun to develop a functioning system of environmental governance that incorporates a status of legal personhood for natural entities. In 2008 Ecuador amended its constitution to reflect this concept. In 2014 and 2017 New Zealand granted legal personhood to its Te Uruwera Forest, the Whanganui River, and Mount Taranaki.The states that have taken such steps have, effectively, increasingly framed their governance systems within the Cognizant Definition of the Anthropocene such as Chile, which is currently rewriting its Constitution to be more reflective of environmental governance.
Copyright Bertrand Laurent, January 18, 2022
The author, Bertrand Laurent, is a Governance Anthropologist who has worked in a dozen countries over the past thirty years on governance issues ranging from environmental management and crime reduction to democracy and civil society strengthening.