Anthropocene Thinking

Do you know the PDF of your shampoo? A ‘PDF’ refers to a “partially diminished fraction of an ecosystem,” and if your shampoo contains palm oil cultivated on clearcut jungle in Borneo, say, that value will be high.

How about your shampoo’s DALY? This measure comes from public health: “disability adjusted life years,” the amount of one’s life that will be lost to a disabling disease because of, say, a liftetime’s cumulative exposure to a given industrial chemical. So if your favorite shampoo contains two common ingredients, the carcinogen 1,4 dioxane, or BHA, an endocrine disrupter, its DALY will be higher.

PDFs and DALYs are among myriad metrics for Anthropocene thinking, which views how human systems impact the global systems that sustain life. This way of perceiving interactions between the built and the natural worlds comes from the geological sciences.  If adopted more widely this lens might usefully inform how we find solutions to the singular peril our species faces: the extinction of our ecological niche.

Beginning with cultivation and accelerating with the Industrial Revolution, our planet left the Holocene Age and entered what geologists call the Anthropocene Age, in which human systems erode the natural systems that support life. Through the Anthropocene lens, the daily workings of the energy grid, transportation, industry and commerce inexorably deteriorate global biogeochemical systems like the carbon, phosphorous and water cycles.

The most troubling data suggests that since the 1950s, the human enterprise has led to an explosive acceleration that will reach criticality within the next few decades as different systems reach a point-of-no-return tipping point. For instance, about half the total rise in atmospheric CO2 concentration has occurred in just the last 30 years – and of all the global life-support systems, the carbon cycle is closest to no-return.  While such “inconvenient truths” about the carbon cycle have been the poster child for our species’ slow motion suicide, that’s just part of a much larger picture, with all the eight global life-support systems under attack by our daily habits.

Anthropocene thinking tells us the problem is not necessarily inherent in the systems like commerce and energy that degrade nature; hopefully these can be modified to become self-sustaining with innovative advances and entrepreneurial energy. The real root of the Anthropocene dilemma lies in our neural architecture.

We approach the Anthropocene threat with brains shaped in evolution to survive the previous geological epoch, the Holocene, when dangers were signaled by growls and rustles in the bushes, and it served one well to reflexively abhor spiders and snakes. Our neural alarm systems still attune to this largely antiquated range of danger.

Add to that misattunement to threats our built-in perceptual blindspot: we have no direct neural register for the dangers of the Anthropocene age, which are too macro or micro for our sensory apparatus. We are oblivious to, say, our body burden, the lifetime build-up of damaging industrial chemicals in our tissues.

To be sure, we have methods for assessing CO2 buildups or blood levels of BHA. But for the vast majority of people those numbers have little to no emotional impact. Our amygdala shrugs.

Finding ways to counter the forces that feed the Anthropocene effect should count high in prioritizing scientific efforts. The earth sciences of course embrace the issue – but do not deal with the root of the problem, human behavior. The sciences that have most to offer have done the least Anthropocene thinking.

The fields that hold keys to solutions include economics, neuroscience, social psychology and cognitive science – and their various hybrids. With a focus on Anthropocene theory and practice they might well contribute species-saving insights. But first they have to engage this challenge, which for the most part has remained off their agenda.

When, for example, will neuroeconomics tackle the brain’s perplexing indifference to the news about planetary meltdown, let alone how that neural blindspot might be patched?  Might cognitive neuroscience one day offer some insight that might change our collective decision-making away from a lemmings’ march to oblivion? Could any of the computer, behavioral or brain sciences come up with an information prosthetic that might reverse our course?

Paul Crutzen, the Dutch atmospheric chemist who won a Nobel for his work on ozone depletion, coined the term ‘Anthropocene’ ten years ago. As a meme, ‘Anthropocene’ has as yet little traction in scientific circles beyond geology and environmental science, let alone the wider culture: A Google check on ‘anthropocene’ shows 78,700 references (mainly in geoscience), while by contrast ‘placebo’, a once-esoteric medical term now well-established as a meme, has more than 18 million (and even the freshly coined ‘vuvuzela’ has 3,650,000).

Published at the Edge foudnations World Question Center 2011