Learning to Lose in the Anthropocene

 The great challenge of our time is not learning how to die, but learning how to lose.

 

A strange and beautiful bloom event turned usually barren Joshua trees into heavy and fragrant bouquets in the Mojave National Preserve desert during the spring of 2013. Both juvenile and mature trees anomalously blossomed at the same time, their branches covered with heavy clusters of pale green and cream coloured flowers. Home to the largest Joshua tree forest on the planet, the desert has reportedly never hosted a mass flowering event of this type and botanists have been hard pressed to explain the uncharacteristic phenomena. Although, regional fluctuations in temperature due to climate change have been flagged as a potential explanation. The Joshua trees, perennially stressed by temperature strains and successive droughts, may have engaged in reproduction en masse, a mysteriously orchestrated flourish of life, an opening to the forces of the external world, which at once represented and threatened the plants’ chance of survival. The bloom was a beautiful and tragic performance, both a bid for continued life and a pronouncement of death.

Such is the strange and precarious existence of biological life in the Anthropocene, the dawning geophysical era that views human civilization as a geologic force in the natural world, akin to major climactic events and tectonic shifts. A term gaining in popularity, the Anthropocene first entered general discourse in 2002 through the work of Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen, although scientific and theoretical concerns regarding the ‘new age’ of man’s impact on the planet had been percolating for decades before then (Steffen et al. 2011). The Anthropocene as a theoretical and cultural concept evokes humanity’s steady march towards ends of various kinds, pressing hard up against the limits of tipping points, thresholds, and negative feedback loops. The movement from the Holocene to the Anthropocene highlights a trajectory that foregrounds a “potentially fatal ecological rift” that threatens “not just the sustainability of human society, but the diversity of life on Earth” (Foster, 2010: 14). The outlook from the outset of the Anthropocene is grim. As U.S. war veteran Roy Scranton memorably put it in a New York Times opinion editorial, the unique challenge posed to humanity in the Anthropocene “is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead.” Thus, Scranton concludes, “If we want to learn how to live in the Anthropocene, we must first learn how to die” (New York Times Opinionator 2013).

The crux of Scranton’s prescription for our new global epoch rests on this assumption: “the sooner we confront this problem, and the sooner we realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.” Yet Scranton’s conclusion oversteps the crucial lesson of the Anthropocene, which is not to learn how to die, but to learn how to lose. And, as Paul Robbins (2013) highlights, how we choose to metaphorize this emerging ‘age of man’ has political and ethical implications that will long outlast the Opinionator pages of the New York Times. So, when speaking about how one must do anything in the Anthropocene, one must speak carefully.

An important internal dialogue ongoing within the scientific community has to do with locating the precise origin of the Anthropocene (Steffen et al.). The debate has broad implications for how well scientific research can trace the global impacts of a growing human population, back to the early days of agriculture, the use of fossil fuels or creation of the steam engine that each, in their own way, radically altered humanity’s relationship with the environment. Yet, the effort to locate the originary moment, the inaugural shift that began humanity’s new path in the Anthropocene, also holds meaningful implications for how we can measure the successes and failures of civilization. In fact, the very existence of the Anthropocene as a new age bodes some amount of retrospective tragedy, where the discoveries, and championed events of past times are seen in hindsight as a genealogy of loss, of destruction and impending global ecological collapse.

It could be argued that one of humanity’s most critical retrospective errors had fundamentally to do with our understanding of nature. The Holocene, as John Bellamy Foster tells us in The Ecological Rift, means “the new whole” and was characterized as a time of relative stability, permanence and environmental order within which human civilization could develop. The natural backdrop of modern human existence was understood as a plenum of consistency, repeatability, and endless production. Humanity’s challenge was to harness this endless flow of nature’s generosity, to mold and direct it in ever more efficient and economic ways. From the ancient Greeks onwards, the very concept of nature was based upon a notion of endlessness – nature is that which is. For Aristotle (1957), nature is synonymous with causality, the very laws of physics. Never in humanity’s history had the idea of nature’s physical finitude formed the basis of our interaction with the natural world (although there were those who, with some prescience, anticipated such limitations, even before they could be said to exist scientifically). It wasn’t until the 1960s, when a widespread sense of nature’s corruptibility and fragility began to influence public consciousness about issues such as pollution, contamination, and waste. It is no coincidence that the first images of planet earth from space, a “pale blue dot” as Carl Sagan (1994) so famously put it, became the iconic imagery of the burgeoning environmental movement. Nature, it appeared, had limits and for that reason nature, as we knew it, had already begun to be lost even if we failed to acknowledge it as such. Public recognition of the environmental crisis, we can identify already half a century later, was merely the delayed part of a larger shift that had long ago occurred. Human existence no longer took place within ‘the new whole’ but within what could no longer be called whole, ‘the age of man.’ Welcome to the Anthropocene.[1]

This new era can be seen as the outcome of humanity’s particular relation to the natural world, one that failed fundamentally to incorporate a sense of nature’s finitude within its metaphysics and eventually socio-politics. The Anthropocene arises from a time when humanity got its metaphor – that of unending natural order – wrong. This particular human-nature relation can be seen in full force in modern Western consumer societies, based upon principles of endless growth and increased consumption; societies like the one Scranton is ushering into a more authentic ‘death’ relationship with the world. Yet as we are trying to understand, the challenge presented to modern societies in the Anthropocene is not to learn how to die, but to learn how to lose. Ultimately, learning how to lose involves seeing what can be lost as irreplaceable. If the existence of the Anthropocene is bound to humanity’s anthropocentric valuation of the natural world, then interrogating this new era will have to involve an interrogation of our anthropocentric way of understanding and valuing nature.

Scranton’s appeal, while well intentioned, remains unapologetically anthropocentric. What is mourned by Scranton is the loss of the world for-us: threatened human security, political chaos, vulnerability – what he likens to civilizational death. He writes, “the rub is that now we have to learn how to die not as individuals, but as a civilization” (New York Times). Further, for Scranton, this death is something that we must seek to ‘get over’ or refuse if we are to free “ourselves to deal with whatever problems the present offers without attachment or fear” (ibid.). Yet what Scranton fails to reflect upon is the fact that Western civilization was created by virtue of an absented attachment or fear. Precisely what lies beneath modern consumptive lifestyles is the now-threatened principle that nature can and will ceaselessly accommodate our socio-economic systems. However we have now lost our claim not only to the natural world, but to the worldviews that have precipitated its destruction. Now is the time, precisely, to face that dual loss and allow it to resonate in its full force.

The experience of loss we now face, with massive declines in biodiversity, vanishing Arctic ice caps and coral reefs, with altered ocean and atmospheric composition, and dwindling fresh water supplies, is no doubt real loss. But the loss only becomes profound when it is experienced as such. The potential transformative power of the Anthropocene resides in its ability to challenge the presumptions that gave rise to it. Without seeing the natural world as what can be lost to us, how will we undergo the transvaluation necessary to radically alter our relation to it? To return to the strange bloom event in the Mojave National Preserve, if we do not allow such visions of precariousness to adjust our metaphoric views of nature, then we run the risk of replicating our destructive behaviours of the past. By reading loss in contemporary natural events, even beautiful ones, we may begin to reinterpret humanity’s relation to this altered world. Not as a world we must detach from, but a world we must emotionally attach to. I argue a sense of nature’s loss is what can emotionally attune the modern world to the ecological crisis of the Anthropocene and potentially direct alternative ethical interactions. Scranton suggests that “the human psyche naturally rebels against the idea of its end” (ibid.). But what is more troubling is the human psyche has yet to grasp the idea of nature’s end. The great challenge of our time then, is not learning how to die, but learning how to lose.

 

 

 

Works Cited:

Aristotle. 1957. The Physics. New York: Harvard University Press. (Aristotle 1957)

Foster, John Bellamy. 2011. The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth. New York:

            Monthly Review Press. (Foster 2011)

Robbins, R. 2013. Choosing Metaphors for the Anthropocene. The Wiley-Blackwell

            Companion to Cultural Geography, eds. N.C. Johnson, R.H. Schein and J. Winders.

            Wiley-Blackwell. (Robbins 2013)

Sagan, Carl. 1994. A Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future from Space. New York:

            Ballantine Books. (Sagan 1994)

Scranton, Roy. 2013. “Learning to Die in the Anthropocene.” New York Times, November

            10. http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/11/10/learning-how-to-die-in-

            the-anthropocene/?_php=true&_type=blogs&_r=0 (Scranton 2013)

Steffen, W. et al. 2011. The Anthropocene: Conceptual and Historical Perspectives.

            Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. (Steffen 369: 842-867)

 

 

[1] “Welcome to the Anthropocene” was the title of a now-seminal article in the editorial section of the popular science journal Nature in 2003.