Monday, August 15, 2011

Learning to be as strange as the rest of nature

The period since the retreat of the glaciers of the Pleistocene, geologically termed the Holocene, has persisted for the past 12,000 years.  It is the relatively stable regime in which the social-ecological systems of the world have developed.  Poor management of the climatic, edaphic, hydrological and other ecosystem feedbacks that maintain this state may result in a critical transition to a less desirable state (at least from the perspective of many humans).  Indeed, we may have already transitioned from the Holocene to the unambiguously human-dominated era of the Anthropocene.  On first inspection this account seems to add little to what many concerned environmental thinkers have been saying for quite some time.  However, it recasts the ecological crisis in geological terms (though Paul Ehrlich has been employing similar devices for decades).  Humans will need to be thought of not only alongside other species but alongside ecological entities as diverse as tectonic plates, volcanoes and hurricanes.   

In future posts I will review recent developments in ecosystem thinking, emphasizing "resilience thinking" as a way of positioning concerns about the entities of ecological thought alongside accounts of the temporality of nature.  Contemporary ecology offers tools for analyzing events which may not result in changing the characteristic functioning of systems (in the way that a small rain event little perturbs a system) and for analyzing those events that tip a system into previously un-encountered states (in a way that a hurricane may radically restructure a system).  Do such recent developments in ecology as a science, or the realization that we may now be in the Anthropocene present something new for a consideration of environmental ethics.  In particular, can the ascetic gestures that characterized late 20th C approaches to sustainability that are cast in terms of withdrawal from the world, for instance, as footprint reduction, simple living and so forth (often appropriate as far as they go) be reframed in terms of a more positive engagement with environing world?  Knowing that to be human is to both alter and be altered by the world; can we invent an ethic of engagement? Can be learn, in other words, to be merely as strange as the rest of nature?

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