Every four years the federal government produces a National Climate Assessment. The latest study has been scientifically approved and is ready for public release, if the Trump administration does not suppress it. According to a copy obtained by the New York Times, the report affirms that the average temperature in the United States has been rising rapidly since 1980. It notes recent advances in attribution science that link climate warming in the United States to aspects of regional and national weather patterns, such as longer and more severe heat waves, more severe rainstorms, and drought. These are events and trends felt by ordinary people, who are economically and socially affected in tangible and direct ways. As everyday life increases awareness of these realities, perhaps the motivation to support climate action policies and measures politically will also become stronger. I hope so.
One can hope, yes, but many must also take steps to facilitate and advance such political support. This is the imperative of our time. As Earth System scientist, Johan Rockström, aptly put it: “We need a mind-shift to reconnect people with nature, societies with the biosphere, the human world with Earth.” The intellectual and educational side of it can begin by realizing that a new page has been turned in the long story of relationships between humans and nature; and that the planet Earth won’t tolerate business as usual much longer without deleterious consequences. Earth requires of us new conduct in the future in order to preserve precious conditions of the past.
In 2016 a working group of geologists proposed to the International Geological Congress a change in the current periodization of Earth history. The proposal declares that the Holocene (the “entirely new epoch”) has ended, and in approximately 1950 a new epoch called the Anthropocene (the “human epoch”) began. The planet now bears in its sediment, its flesh, not only the fossilized remains of Homo sapiens, but also the indelible traces of humankind’s tampering with physical and chemical realities. This human imprint is not simply a short-term reshaping of natural materiality on a limited scale—as the term “ecological footprint” suggests—but reveals new, long-lasting, artefactual materialities arising out of human activity with accelerating pace and sufficient scale that the works of humankind are altering the functioning of planetary systems and cycles. Much of this has to do with the extraction and use of stored energy from fossil carbon, but it is not only that. As surely as we are currently editing the genome, the core of all living things, we are also, and have been for some time, editing the earth, ground of all life as we know it.
The Holocene designates a time of stable and mild climate since the last Ice Age ended about twelve thousand years ago. “The Anthropocene marks a new period in which our collective activities dominate the planetary machinery,” says Chris Rapley, a climate scientist at University College London. “Since the planet is our life support system—we are essentially the crew of a largish spaceship—interference with its functioning at this level and on this scale is highly significant. . . the shift into the Anthropocene tells us that we are playing with fire, a potentially reckless mode of behaviour which we are likely to come to regret unless we get a grip on the situation.”
On this view, the Anthropocene must be marked by a new sense of obligation and care. Now that we know the extent of our influence, stability and change in planetary conditions are no longer simply imposed on humankind by natural necessity, they become part of our ethical remit, particularly the continuation of climate stability and other favorable aspects of the Holocene. Others see more transformative changes in both human and nonhuman being in the post-Holocene epoch (whatever we call it); changes that will require not only a new ethical understanding but a new ontological one also. For example, Donna Haraway eschews the rather species-narcissistic designation, Anthropocene, and proposes that Earth’s emergent condition be called the “Chthulucene,” from the Greek meaning in or under the earth. This shifts the focus away from human power and responsibility toward a new re-grounding or Earth-dwelling for human understanding; a time marked by “the sense of thick, ongoing presence, with hyphae infusing all sorts of temporalities and materialities.” There are many mind-shifts coming in the post-Holocene having to do with scientific evaluations of resilience, moral evaluations of conduct, and aesthetic evaluations of form.
To define a new geological epoch from a scientific point of view, some empirical markers or signals must be found that occur globally and will be (or already are) incorporated in the geological record. Radioactive elements newly introduced into the geosphere by nuclear weapons testing after 1945 are one such signal. Other geologically detectable signals are: microplastic particles, now virtually everywhere in our waterways, the fossils of which will catch the eye of future geologists, and increases in the nitrogen and phosphorous levels due to fertilizer use that may cause the largest change in the planetary nitrogen cycle in the last 2.5 billion years. Finally, the most consequential marker of all is global climate change—in about two centuries, burning fossil-fuels have increased CO2 levels from 280 parts per million (ppm) to 400 ppm today—harbinger of the Anthropocene and a drastic human-induced alteration in planetary conditions characteristic of the Holocene epoch.
Whether geologists will update their periodization chart remains to be seen. For the rest of us, however, we must take stock and come to grips with the fact that the results of human activity have substantially, and perhaps permanently, transformed the biosphere for those living in at least the next few centuries, whatever geologists eventually find in the fossil record thousands or millions of years from now. Hell-bent for leather, human activities are shaping both physical and biological systems and processes on a planetary scale, with many destabilizing and deleterious consequences.
The retreat of glaciers and the moderation of temperatures that characterized the time of the Holocene have been a great boon to humankind. It is no exaggeration to say that we owe the development of our species-being to Holocene climate and flora. Whether or not we first lost our innocence then, or earlier, it was in the Holocene that we gave up our wildness—that self-domestication became natural to us, as John Livingston suggestively puts it.  Soon enough we began transforming our environment into cities and farms. “The world as we know it is a relatively new phenomenon,” Rockström notes, “It has only been during the past 10,000 years, . . . that factors necessary for human societies to develop have been reliably present. Before that, Earth was often a horror show.”
The Holocene is, quite literally, the natural foundation for the cultural archetype of the Garden of Eden. Now, in our very lifetimes, we are wantonly abandoning that boon and embracing a curse. Even if the geologists reject the Anthropocene designation and say that the Holocene continues, humanity is about to be expelled from it anyway. We will lose its blessing and gift if we continue to treat Earth as a limitless stock and sink, and if we ignore the crucial insights offered by Earth System science. These insights involve the concept of resilience and the interconnected and self-adjusting nature of planetary systems.
Resilience involves more than just returning to normal after a period of stress. In the ecological and Earth System sciences, resilience refers to the capability of a system to maintain itself in a relatively stable state through various stabilizing regulatory mechanisms that off-set change-forcing influences. However, as resilience declines, systems also have the capability to transform themselves into a new stable state as various mechanisms are triggered that reinforce change-forcing influences. These mechanisms often cannot be reversed once activated. Resilience applies to ecosystems at various scales, from a local pond or a particular forest to the planet as a whole. At the planetary level, the resiliencies of all systems are interconnected so that loss of resilience and destabilization of one, such as the climate system, affects others such as biospheric integrity.
Even if some of the beneficial conditions of the Holocene can be carried over into the Anthropocene, for human life and conduct the Anthropocene means radical change—fundamental alteration at the roots of our thinking. It means that we can no longer assume a Holocene normal—that we have taken for granted so unthinkingly, and tended so carelessly. We will have to work hard to earn it. The inevitability of serious planetary alterations doesn’t seem to be in question any longer. Only the nature and impacts of change are still in play: change for good or ill, change with consequences that are equitably borne or unjustly parceled out. Jeremy Schmidt, Peter Brown, and Christopher Orr capture the essence of the predicament well: “The Anthropocene is a storm in which ethics and science are entangled: ethical systems moderate behaviors that shape the Earth System, while new categories often informed by science. . . shape ethical calls for planetary stewardship.”
In the coming years of the Anthropocene, human conduct will have to change on a very large scale in order to avoid undermining Earth’s capability, as a planet, to sustain flourishing and resilient life. The focal point of change will have to be the activities of extraction, fabrication, and excretion within national and global political economies. The time for imagining humans acting out their personal, social, and political dramas in the foreground against a background of more or less automatic or technologically tweaked changes in the non-human world—like the images projected on a greenscreen behind actors in the making of a special effects movie—is over. Foreground and background have merged.
Thinking as we have been taught to think and to interpret the world, by most of our academic disciplines in the past will mislead us because these disciplines assume Holocene continuity and because if they notice planet scale changes at all they assume that such alterations take place so slowly, relative to the human time scale, that they can be safely ignored. We shall have to learn new things, in new ways, but we also must unlearn some older things. If the Anthropocene began around 1950, then these disciplines have guided much of the economic and political activity that has so rapidly gotten the planet into deep trouble. The guidance these disciplines provide is clearly out of touch with bio-physical realities and limits on a living earth. They are blind to workings of complex natural systems over decades because they cannot integrate the knowledge we have of such systems—via modeling and constructing probabilistic information—into the more short-term metrics that drive policy and incentivize investment. And it is these disciplines, advising those in positions of power, that have invented the inadequate metrics in the first place.
In sum, how can conduct that promotes Holocene resilience be prompted? How can a right relationship between culture and nature—human projects and earth systems—be established? This is a large topic, and I propose to explore only one facet of it. Can a moral philosophy and ethical life attuned to integrated planetary systems, and not simply to particular ecosystems, emerge? Can such an ethics play a meaningful role in bringing about the needed changes in human conduct as the Anthropocene unfolds? For short, let me call this new perspective an “earth ethics.”
Is a new kind of ethics necessary in the Anthropocene, and what would actually be new about earth ethics? After all, the conceptual construction of moral and religious philosophies and the practical construction of ethical ways of living have been going on for at least the latter half of the Holocene—that is, the last few thousand years. Therefore, there are a very large number of ethical systems on offer. Generally speaking, ethics is the study of right and wrong; good and bad; positive, valuable states of the world and negative, harmful ones. The most predominant forms of ethics today are based on consequences, duties, or virtues, but they each come in many different versions. Surely we can find the ideas we need among this rich tradition of discourse to make our way forward in the Anthropocene.
Perhaps. Yet several serious observers are not sanguine. Clive Hamilton, Christophe Bonneuil, and François Gemenne put the point starkly: “It is not enough to describe as ‘unethical’ human actions that are causing the sixth mass extinction of species. . . . Talk of ethics renders banal a transition that belongs to deep time, one that is literally Earth-shattering. In deep time, there are no ethics.”
This sounds nihilistic, but I don’t think the authors mean to announce the end of ethics in the sense that the Anthropocene transition will be a time beyond good and evil in which right and wrong will have no meaning in relation to human conduct. The question being raised has to do with the adequacy of the concepts, outlooks, and evaluative practices inherited and transmitted from our cultural past in historical time. Hamilton, as I note below, perceives a radical rupture in the reality of nature that must be answered by an equally radical discontinuity in culture, a new form of whole system thinking on a planetary scale. In contrast, Schmidt, Brown, and Orr respond that despite a paradigm shift in scientific and normative understanding, “there are several reasons not to reject conventional ethics altogether, or to dismiss all forms of ‘cultural learning or transmission’ based on fiat declarations about the implications of new geological time periods.”
Nonetheless, the concern about the adequacy of traditional concepts and categories in ethics is well taken. In ethics and moral philosophy, thinking as we have been taught to think about the world will produce anomalies, blind spots, and practical mistakes in the future. The history of moral philosophy demonstrates this; but so does the history of science.
Whatever else it is, a new ethics for the Anthropocene must be a “critical” ethics. By this I mean that human beings often act—and perceive themselves to be acting—deliberately and on the basis of what they perceive to be good reasons and sound values. It will be the task of ethics in the Anthropocene to scrutinize rigorously and critically what “good reasons” and “sound values” involve. This critical perspective is essential because understandings of reason and value vary, and people make errors and can be self-deceptive about what they are doing and why.
Of course, virtually all types of moral philosophy aspire to do this, although many have failed in practice. What I envision as a new earth ethics, however, has one important difference—it resides within a new scientific and intellectual context or horizon. Earth ethics can be thought of as studying good reasons and sound values from the perspective of Earth System functioning. The importance of this is well articulated by Hamilton in his recent book, Defiant Earth:
Grasping the scale of what is happening requires . . .making the cognitive leap to Earth System thinking. It is one thing to accept that human influence has spread across the landscape, the oceans, and the atmosphere, but quite another to make the jump to understanding that human activities are disrupting the functioning of the Earth as a complex, dynamic, ever-evolving totality comprised of myriad interlocking processes. . . . If human activity occurring over a century or two can irreversibly transform the global climate for tens of thousands of years, we are prompted to rethink history and social analysis as a purely intra-human affair.
Clearly, the cognitive leap to which Hamilton refers would erase the illusion of the sui generis character of the human cultural and social world: culture as foreground to nature’s background, and ethics as “purely intra-human.” Thinking in terms of earth systems also shatters human chauvinism, which holds that only human beings can have intrinsic moral value or worth. But critiques of these views are legion. Environmental and ecological ethics have already gone a long way toward displacing them among those who think carefully. Still, nature has been brought from background to foreground and given ethical consideration primarily on ecosystem, landscape, or watershed scales. One of the strengths of ecology as a discipline is that it is a science of the particular. So ecological ethics has not, as yet, put nonhuman nature together as a complex, dynamic and interactive whole. The moral significance of the being and becoming of Earth as a complex of co-creative systems has yet to be appreciated. Earlier articulations of this kind can be found in the history of ideas—Alexander von Humboldt comes to mind—but ethics has new conceptual work to do in order to embrace an Earth System framework.
A reconceptualization of the context of moral thought and ethical life also carries with it a reconceptualization of ethical ideas and categories themselves. Aristotle rethought virtue by contextualizing it in a polity whose constitution ensured a political “mean” between extremes, an equilibrium of class power. Kant rethought duty by taking it out of the phenomenal world where it had utility only and placing it in a world of autonomous reason where it had value for its own sake. Hegel rethought freedom by taking it out of a timeless space of non-domination and returning it to a temporal unfolding in which the human condition could become fully self-aware through a dialectic of conflict and struggle. In the work of these thinkers and others, it is not so much that totally new ethical concepts are needed as it is that received concepts need to be understood in new ways.
Even so, it is pertinent to consider the shape that ethical discourse and argumentation might take if rethought on much larger physical and temporal scales, with a much greater appreciation of systemic boundaries, limits, complexity, and symbiosis. Consider care and solidarity, for instance. How would we have to reconceptualize them—and restructure their cultural practices communicatively and institutionally—if we saw nonhuman beings as agentic rather than as ontologically passive and reactive? Or if we saw geo-physical materiality as living rather than inert?
Moral theories and ethical formations in cultures that assert the unique value of human persons often assume that they are saying this in some kind of abstract logical vacuum or from some moral point of view from nowhere. But they are not. These ethical systems are founded on the Holocene, an entire earth system operative for thousands of years, which has made it possible for human beings to devise ethical discourse (with many different contents) and integrate it into their social lives and organizational practices. An ethics of justice and obligations grounded on individual human rights is possible only because the climatic and other aspects of the Holocene were the preconditions for the very possibility of conceiving, valuing, and protecting individual rights in the first place. As Schmidt and colleagues put it: “In the Anthropocene. . .the state of the Earth System does not provide for the kind of functional stability assumed by, but largely unacknowledged within, conventional ethics. . . . The human-induced flux on the Earth System characteristic of the Anthropocene challenges how, or if, conventional ethics may be reliably anchored.”
An earth ethics for the Anthropocene, then, does not need to abandon the concepts of individual human rights and social justice; it simply needs to repudiate the past uses of those concepts to justify activities that are destructive of the resilience of Earth’s systems. It needs to base the ethical obligations operative within human culture and society—especially within the political economy—on the ethical obligations to the earth as a complex totality and system of life.
And not just to any state of that system. It was the Holocene that brought ethical thinking into the world. The Holocene—that mere infant of an epoch by past standards—should last much, much longer. It will not last forever because another Ice Age will come, even if we don’t somehow induce one prematurely. Forever is a long time; couldn’t we buy another ten thousand years at least? In any case, an earth ethics surely calls upon us to perpetuate the favorable life conditions of the Holocene for longer into the future.
If only Earth will give us the time to edit our ethics. If only we don’t squander that precious time vaingloriously attempting to edit Earth via geo-engineering—purportedly with the benevolent intention of an engineer rather than with the obtuseness of a bull in a china shop. The longer we delay editing ethics (and altering conduct thought to be morally justified), the more tempting editing Earth will be. Can an earth ethics alter conduct? The answer had better be yes.
All systems of ethics are a cultural complex of reasons, value commitments, interests, ideals, and motivations. Such a complex is found in virtually all functioning and stable societies, although the substantive content of reasons, ideals, and motivations varies widely among such societies, past and present. Whether any substantive ethical universals—reasons, rules, ideals common to all societies—exist remains a point of disagreement. But it is widely agreed that there is no known society that is entirely devoid of an ethical complex of ideals and rules, and that there is no human group entirely incapable of ethical thought.
An earth ethics will likewise be a cultural complex of reason and motivation that shapes and directs the conduct of individuals and groups. These shaping reasons and motivations, in turn, are cultivated by the creative development, meaning, and communication of concepts. Ethical concepts provide a lens through which to understand the world and our place in it. Ethical concepts also provide motivation and will to act upon that understanding. Politically, appeal to ethics can rationalize and legitimate existing practices, or it can serve as a basis for critique of the status quo and as a motivating aspiration for radical social change, depending upon its substantive content. Without value-infused vision and will, no matter how advanced our science and technology becomes, we are unlikely to rise to the occasion of this critical juncture—it has boiled down to decades, not centuries—in Earth history and this crisis moment for humankind.
How does ethical discourse bring about the value-infused vision and will that are needed? The discourse of earth ethics should be developed so that consensus can be built around it founded on notions of logical, cogent reasoning, evaluation, and appraisal, and on non-anthropocentric versions of basic principles such as justice, equality, and rights. The mind-shift to which Rockström refers must also include a reconnection among people themselves. An earth ethics can help to achieve a society in which most people, most of the time, act to fulfill consciously held good reasons—reasons that have rational normative justification supporting them. We must learn more about the circumstances under which moral education and the cognitive and emotional skills necessary for motivation and action guided by the achievement of ethical ideals—such as social justice, respect for the rights and dignity of others, and stewardship of the natural environment and planetary systems—can be gained. How does a society morally learn?
An earth ethics in the Anthropocene will set a relatively new agenda for happiness, justice, goodness, and duty. It will focus on the political realization of Anthropocene-functional and Holocene conserving rules, values, and ways of life. In doing so, it will need to support ecological citizenship by providing better systems of participation, deliberation, and consensus-building, remembering the key role of motivating reasons, deliberate, principled action, and reflective, evaluative judgment.
Some have announced the arrival of a “post-truth” society, in which individuals and groups are no longer motivated by information about objective facts, but by appeals to their emotions and pre-existing beliefs. Such cultural and psycho-social formations cannot be tolerated in the Anthropocene for very long. An earth ethics discourse must offer a viable alternative—a reconnect with truth, a restoration of social trust.
This issue of Minding Nature has two special features. First we visit the topic of our moral and civic responsibilities to water. It is hard to think of a more fundamental issue for an earth ethics, and Brock Dolman and Betsy Damon share a wealth of expertise and experience to guide us. Damon contributes both a thoughtful essay on the being of water and a practically oriented toolkit designed for community education and action in local settings. Such resources are essential to civic learning and civic practice.
The second special feature in this issue is a wonderful sampling of a number of chapters that will appear in a new book co-edited by Gavin Van Horn and John Hausdoerffer, Wildness: Relations of People and Place, forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press. From this rich multi-authored volume, we have exercised the prerogative of colleagueship and selected chapters from Center for Humans and Nature President, Brooke Hecht, Senior Fellow, Curt Meine, and Gavin himself. They get us wild in Wisconsin, Iceland, and points like Chicago in-between.
We also have two lively interview-dialogues in this issue. In one, we get a glimpse behind the scenes into some thinking that informed Wildness with a conversation between Van Horn and Hausdoerffer. In a second interview, Jim Ballowe presents his fascinating conversation with Arthur Melville Pearson. Currently the Director of the Chicago Region Program for the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, Pearson is a prominent author of several works including Force of Nature, a biography of George Fell, who was the driving force behind the founding of The Nature Conservancy and the Natural Areas Movement.
In our Reviews & Reflections there are two additional engaging essays. Jim Krosschell packs up his Thoreau and a mind full of fascinating thoughts and takes us on a journey into the forest world of Maine. Karen Jacobs provides another exploration, this time into intellectual history, tracing the theory and practice of “geomancy”—divination or discovery by means of signs derived from the earth. This is a tradition in which the proper relationship between humans and nature is not given, but must be earned and put into practice, and it is dynamic and unpredictable. There are many ways the signs the earth gives us can be understood, even as the earth becomes The Earth System. How we listen can be just as important as what we hear.
In The Last Word, Kevin Clark and Anja Claus revisit the efforts that have been made, by the Center and others, in assessing the prospects of democracy in the world’s response to the climate crisis.
Our featured artist for this issue is Diana Sudyka, an illustrator and printmaker from Chicago, who creates work for book and album covers, screenprinted gigposters, and original watercolors. More of her work can be seen at http://www.dianasudyka.com.
Minding Nature notes with sadness and fond memory the death of two of our colleagues and collaborators.
Earlier this year, we lost Benjamin R. Barber, a leading political theorist whose important essay “Democracy or Sustainability: The City as Mediator,” came out in Minding Nature, Vol. 7, No. 1 (January 2014).
In August our wise friend, George Rabb, leading scientist and Center Board Member, passed away. See below for a brief reminiscence of Dr. Rabb.