Welcome to the Anthropocene. This greeting is belated, of course. We have all been here the whole of our lives, without knowing it for most of our days. The Anthropocene is a span of geological and evolutionary time (technically, an epoch) during which humans have had an outsized role in transforming the natural world, most of that time without knowledge and awareness of the consequences of their actions. Those who use the term argue about when the epoch begins. Does it start with the Industrial Revolution, late in the 18th century, hastening around 1850? Or does it make sense to push the date back in time to the first appearances of agriculture in scattered populations, as much as 10,000 years before the present, or even earlier? It matters more to scientists and scholars than it does to you, whenever you step out into your dooryard (a patch of the outdoors where the business of human work and play, in and out of doors, transacts with the natural). You’re in the Anthropocene. Choices made by many generations of people just like yourself, just like me, influence what you come across there. You’ll find the influences in small things, mostly. You’ll find them in things that are very easy to overlook—a lilac blooming a week earlier than it did a couple of decades ago, for instance. But look a little further afield and you’ll find them in far greater ways as well.
Sea levels are rising. In the absence of major changes in the way that we burn fossil fuels, they will rise alarmingly, enough to inundate major population centers—some are cities, but others are critical agricultural lands—throughout the world. It is unlikely that rising sea levels will be gentle affairs, permitting time for people to slip away quietly, rebuilding or replanting on higher ground. On the contrary, sea level rise will go hand in hand with storms and storm surges, like Hurricane Sandy in 2012. When sea levels rise, they will do so along coastlines that have been redrawn by extreme weather events and by hastened geological processes like erosion.
Glaciers will surge and drop into the sea. The oceans will grow more acidic. Corals will dissolve in the resultant fizz. And most important, droughts whose total magnitude may dwarf anything yet experienced will send refugees fleeing in various regions around the world. As with so many events, it will be difficult to finger anthropocentric climate change as a singular cause of the mayhem, but it will be a major contributing factor.
In a worst case scenario, grounded ice in Greenland will melt so quickly that the infusion of freshwater into the North Atlantic Ocean will change the density of local seawater, possibly bringing change to global oceanic currents because of the critical flow of seawater in just this place.
Climate change, and the need to confront both its causes and its consequences, will probably require decades of action, ingenuity, and hope amid setbacks.
Historians know that there are trends in human history that dwarf events we like to think of as “historic.” These trends unfold over decades; some bring wholesale change to the course of history, with effects that last for centuries. One such is known as the Columbian Exchange, or European Contact. That’s the moment when people from Europe crossed the Atlantic Ocean, bringing diseases (such as smallpox and syphilis) to what would come to be known as the Americas, decimating the indigenous populations here and setting the stage for conquest. Other events occur over even longer periods of time and have a mixture of positive and negative consequences. One such was the spread of literacy, beginning in the 17th century, as a response to the Protestant Reformation, with its emphasis on reading and interpreting the Bible, one sinner at a time.
Then there was the Black Death of the 14th century, which killed tens of millions in Europe.
Anthropocentric climate change is an event on this scale, perhaps even greater than any of these by an order of magnitude. For unlike the Black Death, the spread of literacy, and the Columbian Exchange, anthropocentric climate change is reshaping the complete biota, and the physical earth, globally, over a very short period of time. And in addition to a difference in magnitude, this event differs from these others in two profoundly important ways. First, it is reversible and it is within our power to reverse it. Second, because we are aware of it, we can be quite attentive to how it unfolds. We can learn from it.
It is not too late to stop it and reverse it. That can be done, but not once and for all. Thoughtful people across the planet have been searching for decades to find ways to reduce the quantities of carbon that make their way into the atmosphere. Continued commitments from the peoples and governments of the world, including those of the United States, may, in time, prevent the worst among the several projected calamities from occurring. Even then, climate change, and the need to confront both its causes and its consequences, will probably require decades of action, ingenuity, and hope amid setbacks. New technologies may render it simpler to reduce carbon emissions from making their way into the atmosphere. But so long as carbon remains in the ground, especially in the form of coal, there will be a temptation to make use of it. Thus it is unlikely that this is a problem that will be solved once and for all time.
Why do I think this? I take my guarded pessimism, for that’s what it is, from a somewhat different realm, that of economics. Economists learned, in the middle decades of the 20th century, just what was required in order to recover from a global depression. It takes spending by governments, the customers of last resort, on a fairly large scale. In the 1940s, this spending, Keynesian spending as economists call it, was justified by World War II. But spending on a similar scale in peacetime would have been appropriate in the 1930s. This was the lesson learned in the 1940s, captured in one of the primary textbooks for economists (by Paul Samuelson) and then forgotten by the time of the downturn that came in 2008. Economists such as Paul Krugman decried the inadequate economic stimulus—it may have been about half what was needed—that was passed by Congress and signed by President Obama in 2009. The result was anemic growth. Europe fared even less well. Thus, a key lesson of economics and policy making was forgotten for a variety of reasons. Surely one of those reasons was avarice, but there were other reasons.
Are we likely to keep our memories intact about climate change? It is certainly my hope that we can and will. But even with as profound a basis for memory as tens of thousands of natural records, reducing carbon emissions and keeping them as low as possible will be a problem over the longue durée.
The reason for this, the foundation for the problem, is the philosophical ground on which American institutions of governance are built. By this, I’m referring to the notion of God-given and inalienable rights, cited by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence but taken by Jefferson from the philosophical work of John Locke’s Two Treatises. The trouble with Locke is that his thinking came well in advance of ideas about the changing nature of nature itself and of its limits. To provide a major example, Locke knew nothing of the idea of extinction, an idea that would not arrive in the world of ideas until Georges Cuvier established it in 1800. For Locke, nature was a constant, given by God. By the time Cuvier issued his caveat—and he did not think of it quite that way—the major works of classical liberalism were written, and nations—the United States, France—were promising to guarantee certain rights of property and certain liberties, no matter what nature might say about the matter.
This is just where we still remain. Virtually all policy designed to forestall the consequences of climate change threatens, in some way, certain liberties and rights to property that are the bedrock of American political culture (never mind the fact that the consequences, unforestalled, deny whole island nations and people living near sea level of their rights and property). And so, from a certain point of view, it is rational to stand against any policy that limits liberty and confiscates property or diminishes its value. Garrett Hardin understood this quite well and explained it in his article “The Tragedy of the Commons.”
One of a number of ecologists and biologists who made their concerns public in the 1960s, Hardin was concerned that unchecked human population growth would outpace global food supplies in just a few decades. Although that did not happen, for reasons that include responses to Hardin’s concern, the argument he made has a broader application. There were two parts to what Hardin argued; one of them, having to do with “game theory” in economics, also has applications to ecological theory, but I will put it aside in order to consider the other. This has to do with classical economics: When we have a choice to engage in some kind of exchange, dollars for bread for instance, we make a rational choice. It’s never fun to give up dollars, but bread tastes good and keeps us alive. So as long as the price is right, not too many dollars for too little bread, we make the exchange. Economists talk of this decision as one having to do with “utility.” If bread has a positive utility of 1, and giving up dollars has a negative utility, one of −1, then this is a fair and rational exchange. Most exchanges work this way, but there are some that do not. Among those that do not are environmental things—things that we share in common, but sometimes exchange. Economists call these “common pool resources,” but Hardin compared them to the old notion in New England of a town commons, everyone’s dooryard, a plot of grazing land shared by all the townspeople.
Our political institutions were given form in a time when nature was considered rather static and inexhaustible.
As long as townspeople made use of the commons without straining the carrying capacity of the resource—that is, as long as there was more grass to feed cows than there were cows to eat it all—everything was fine. But here, the decision to add a cow to the commons (perhaps a townsperson wanted to produce excess milk so as to make butter or cheese for sale) has a different mathematical model of utility from that of an individual choice. Here, the positive utility of adding a cow might be +1, but the negative utility never approaches −1. The latter, in case of a common pool resource, is shared by all who depend on the resource. If there are 30 people who own cows, then the negative utility is −1/30. What that means is that it is always rational, on purely economic grounds, to add a cow.
And yet we know that it isn’t rational on ecological grounds. At some point, there will be more cows than there is grass. The cows will eat all the grass, and then the roots, and the resource will be fully consumed: the tragedy of the commons.
Hardin argued, in his paper, which was published in Science in 1968, that in the absence of a market mechanism for preventing catastrophe, rational people needed to regulate certain kinds of economic activity; in particular, activity under conditions of a common pool resource. And that’s precisely the case with climate change. Consider the difference in productivity between a worker who has to carry out a task in an air-conditioned room (at, say, 68 degrees Fahrenheit) and another worker who must carry out the same task at an ambient temperature of 95 degrees. The cooler worker will carry out the task more economically, at greater speed, will go through more iterations of the task, and will therefore be more productive. If the positive utility of the increased productivity exceeds the negative utility of providing air conditioning (buying an air conditioner and paying for electricity), then it’s a rational choice to have a worker who is cool as a cucumber.
The problem here is that one part of this equation hasn’t been accounted for. The carbon dioxide produced as a waste product (economists call this an externality) isn’t part of the equation. Hardin says: regulate it.
To a climate change activist, the idea that higher productivity is rational is the problem, and it is a problem in perpetuity so long as our political and governmental institutions are grounded in an understanding of nature consistent with Locke, and with the absolute time and space of Isaac Newton, but inconsistent with a conception of natural change, best exemplified by Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. That is, our political institutions were given form in a time when nature was considered rather static and inexhaustible. We might—or our progeny might—reconstitute our political entities on a new, more Darwinian basis. But until that happens, the battle is to persuade majorities in democratic societies that their interests are best served by giving up a little Newton and accepting a little Darwin.
Mark L. Hineline is an instructor in history, philosophy, and sociology of science at Lyman Briggs College, Michigan State University.
Reprinted with permission from Ground Truth: A Guide to Tracking Climate Change at Home, by Mark L. Hineline, published by the University of Chicago Press. © 2018 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved.
Lead image: Jewel Samad / Getty Images; Wikipedia