This post is part of a multi-year project, Being Human in the Age of Humans: Perspectives from Religion and Ethics led by Lisa Sideris (Indiana University), Celia Deane-Drummond (Notre Dame), Sarah Fredericks(University of Chicago), and Kyle Powys Whyte (Michigan State University). To read the introductory post for the blog series, click here.
With Humanities in the conversation, the questions of the Anthropocene become normative as well as descriptive. In particular, the question of the whether to call this epoch the Anthropocene is, it seems to me, a question that requires moral reflection.
Of course, this is in part a scientific issue, and it calls for an understanding of how earth systems work and how they are being changed. But that does not complete the investigation, because asking whether this is the Anthropocene also calls for a nuanced understanding of how human moral systems work and are being changed. We should ask not only “are homo sapiens a predominant geological force,” but also “are homo sapiens morally equipped to be a predominant geological force?”
While not always recognized, this is already a part of the debate. In The Human Age, Diane Ackerman is optimistic about the “age of humans” because she sees this as the chance for humanity to “mature” by taking care of our Mother Earth rather than expecting to be cared for by her. The epoch calls our species to step up, to expand our morality, and to join together in common cause for this age. The age of humans is the age in which humans have—and have the chance to live up to—responsibility for the planet. The interplay between descriptive and normative is important here—we are in a new age not only because of the state of the material world, but also because of the moral capacities that state can help us to realize.
This approach has ample precedent in environmental ethics, and one root can be found in Aldo Leopold’s field-shaping The Land Ethic, which proposed an “extension” of morality outward from humanity to the natural world. Leopold narrates a grand history in which human beings have learned the first ethics (relations between individuals, such as in the Ten Commandments) and second ethics (relating individuals to society as a whole, with human rights and democratic principles as examples). He then calls for a third step, which would deal with human “relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it.” Note the move from descriptive to normative: like Ackerman, Leopold observes human power over the nonhuman world and then suggests that this power calls for moral responsibility.
Others point more to the limits of contemporary human morality than its future potential. Patricia Nelson Limerick raises suspicion about Aldo Leopold’s ethics because he paid inadequate attention to the intrahuman oppression going on around him. Slavery is Leopold’s symbol of humans who had yet to learn the “second ethics,” but Limerick chides that he missed the reality that there is “unfinished business” in the wake of slavery. One need not dismiss Leopold to recognize this challenge: responding to the 2015 mass shooting in a church in Charleston, South Carolina, the Executive Director of the Aldo Leopold Foundation began a blog post acknowledging this challenge: “How can we have a land ethic when such violence against humanity continues?”
The same idea informs many critiques of the Anthropocene concept and of optimism about human morality capable of managing the planet. The argument here is that there is no reason to think that people who created and continue to defend a capitalist system will become morally mature enough to respond to the harms that system causes to humans and nonhumans alike. It is dangerous to hope that moral systems that have not yet dealt squarely with patriarchy and racism, and have not actually achieved Leopold’s “second ethics,” are going to make human beings capable of managing the planet.
By this logic, the Anthropocene concept is not only false but dangerous. The idea of an age of humans assumes a species-wide unity, which could act as a smokescreen by which the wealthy, privileged, and colonizing use to mask their particular guilt for the state of the planet. Along these lines, Jason Moore argues that the Anthropocene is an expression of “an old capitalist trick playing out through environmentalist discourse: take a problem created by the 1 percent, then tell the 99 percent it’s their fault.” Moore refers to the present planetary state as the “Capitalocene,” a time defined by the excesses, manipulations, and overconsumption of capitalism, and insists that calling this time the “age of humans” ignores the fact that this system was created by and serves elites, not the entire species. Others suggest this should be understood as the “Androcene” to acknowledge the patriarchal foundations of environmental and social degradation. Both rejections of the Anthropocene concept are as normative as they are descriptive: we do not live in an age of humans because humans as a whole have not learned to treat one another morally.
These offer important perspectives, but my task here is not to judge between them. Instead, it is to observe that they share a moral core. The question of the Anthropocene is, partially but essentially, a moral question. Bringing morality into discussion of a geological epoch may seem radical, but this is all new territory, and defining it without moral considerations would be far more radical and far more dangerous.
So, my question, a question I hope many in the humanities will help me to refine and ponder, is this: are we, as a species or in local communities, humane enough to live in an age of humans?
- Ackerman, Diane. The Human Age: The World Shaped By Us. New York: Norton, 2015.
- Leopold, Aldo. “The Land Ethic.” In A Sand County Almanac: With Essays on Conservation From Round River. New York: Ballantine, 1986.
- Limerick, Patrica N. “Hoping Against History: Environmental Justice in the Twenty-First Century.” In Justice and Natural Resources: Concepts, Strategies, and Applications, edited by Kathryn Mutz, Gary Bryner, and Douglas Kenney. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2001.
- Moore, Jason W. “Confronting the Popular Anthropocene: Toward an Ecology of Hope.” New Geographies 9(2017): 186–91 .
Kevin J. O'Brien is Professor of Christian Ethics and Dean of the Division of Humanities at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington.