Welcome to the Anthropocene. Cover story of the The Economist, 26 May 2011.

Welcome to the Anthropocene. Cover story of the The Economist, 26 May 2011.

We are living in the Anthropocene. The term, proposed by Crutzen and Stoermer in 2000, attempts to capture the profound effect humans have had and are having on the geology and ecology of Earth. While Crutzen and Stoermer think of the Anthropocene as beginning in the 18th century with the rise of fossil fuels — and many have subsequently adopted this view –, I think humans have been altering ecology in massive ways much longer and that we need not limit our indicator of the Anthropocene to climate change.

At the “From Instants to Eons: Time in Environment and Environmental History” conference yesterday, the Anthropocene took center stage in both of the keynote lectures by Verena Winiwarter (Klagenfurt University, Austria) and Frank Zelko (University of Vermont, USA). On top of that, my husband, Finn Arne Jørgensen, started a two-week stint as the Umeå University blogger yesterday in which he will be writing a series of posts on the Anthropocene and entanglement with nature. The Anthropocene is on my mind.

In a sense, nothing could illustrate the Anthropocene better than the reintroduction cases I’m working on. Only humans could do what’s been done. Only humans could and would transport muskox calves thousands of miles from Greenland to Norway to settle them where the species had been extinct for 30,000 years. Humans over came the geographic limitations of Earth, serving as a land bridge between two places that muskox could not have travelled between on their own. Only humans could nearly exterminate the beaver population in all of Europe, then decades or hundreds of years later transport beavers in boxes for days via rail and boat and wagon to release them in prior beaver territories. Only humans could wipe out the vicent in the wild then carefully manage the few animals remaining in zoos to breed a population for reintroduction.

While I recognize the immense power humans have in shaping this planet for good or bad, I have to ask: is the Anthropocene something to be afraid of? That seems to be the message some scholars want to convey. At the end of Verena’s talk about turning points in environmental history, we were shown projections from the Limits to Growth and follow-up studies of it that basically predict the dramatic collapse of civilization as we know it in 2030. For her, this is the cost of the Anthropocene. But how useful was such a doomsday message for the audience? It gave us the tragic ending of the tale with little hope for change.

That’s where I want to be different in my keynote lecture today, “Happy endings: how choosing the end point of our environmental histories matters”. Because I acknowledge the profoundness of the Anthropocene, environmental historians need to find stories that give us hope, directions for the future. We as humans have the unique ability to shape nature, so we need to be conscious about that force. My talk builds upon Cronon’s storytelling ideas I discussed in a previous post, thinking about the moral of the story that is drawn out of different narratives.

I can tell different stories by focusing on a particular time frame. If I stop the beaver story in 1871, it is nothing but tragic. Beaver are dead and gone from Sweden. But if I extend story to the 1930s, there is a very different outcome. While the beaver had been gone, it is back. The narrative is no longer a declensionist one. The moral of the story shifts from humans being responsible for the rapacious destruction of wildlife, to a moral that we can undo environmental damage like the beaver’s disappearance. While both of the narratives are true, the narratives lead us to different places. And I would argue that the first narrative—the extinction of the beaver—takes us to a dead end. It gives us a picture of destruction, but doesn’t suggest ways that the world can be pieced back together. By extending the narrative through the reintroduction, we are led on a path to action. We see that there is hope for the future; that things maybe can be made right.

During the De-extinction conference,conservation biologist Kent Redford commented after his talk:

Conservation started off with a conviction that it was a crisis discipline and that it could only get people’s attention by pointing out what was wrong and the terrible things that we are doing to the natural world. I think that after 30 years of that, people have stopped listening to us. And I think that the lessons should be that hope is the answer and that hope will get people’s attention. And it’s why I’m less concerned about the details of de-extinction than I am about the lesson of hope it can carry.

The same applies to environmental history. I think people will stop listening (and maybe they already have) if all we offer are doomsday messages. By wisely choosing the end point of the story, we may provide a path forward.