Friday, 16 September 2016

Discussding the Anthropocene

Conservation in the Anthropocene Age
By David Hall*

Opinion - Modern humans have created a global sedimentary layer of radioactive dust, plastics, soot and concrete that will last for millions of years. Welcome to the Anthropocene Age.

The start of a 30,000 acre fire, lit to clear the land of bush, Pukatora Station, East Coast, taken in the early 1900s.

16 Septermber, 2016

There are shadows hanging over this year's Conservation Week.

Not all of them are sinister. The government's commitment to Predator Free New Zealand 2050 has attracted warm vibrations from the world's media. It's the right kind of target too: concrete, time-bound and easy to understand.

The worry though, is that, like a well-positioned shadow puppet, this promise might appear more substantial than it actually is. Can an extra $7 million per year really rid our rugged islands of possums, stoats and rats? The proof will be in the pudding - and the recipe is still vague at best.

What's less vague is the dire situation for indigenous biodiversity. The Ministry for the Environment classifies as 'endangered' 81 percent of our resident bird species, 72 percent of freshwater fish, 88 percent of reptiles, 100 percent of native frogs, and 27 percent of resident marine mammal species.

Notoriously, our adorable Māui dolphin is down to fewer than 70 animals.
Then there are all those other problems: the vexed issue of water quality, the encroachment of wilding pines, and the Department of Conservation's (DOC) dwindling capacity to tackle its snowballing remit.

But in my humble opinion, there's an even larger shadow hanging over Conservation Week: the inauguration of the Anthropocene, known as the age of profound human impact.

Last month the Anthropocene Working Group voted to acknowledge that a new geological epoch began around the time of 'the Great Acceleration' in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Once supporting evidence is gathered, this group will ask the International Commission on Stratigraphy, the official body in charge of geologic time, to recognise the Anthropocene epoch as the official successor to the Holocene.

What makes the recognition of this new age so relevant, is that it forces us humans to admit the scale of our influence.

If our civilisations vanished from the face of the Earth tomorrow, we wouldn't just leave behind traces for future archaeologists or future palaeontologists to discover, we would leave behind traces for future geologists to discover.

Over the last half-century we've created a global sedimentary layer of radioactive dust, plastics, soot and concrete, an unmistakable signal that will pervade the geological record for millions of years to come.

These days, nothing on this planet's surface is unaffected by human activities. Anthropogenic global warming simply reinforces the point.

David Rhodes said low carbon prices had been a big concern for forest owners.Should we plant Pinus radiata instead of native trees, because pines grow faster and therefore sequester more carbon? Photo: 123RF

Almost all the world's biodiversity and ecosystems are adapting or perishing as a result of changes in the temperature and chemical composition of our atmosphere and our oceans. If the old human/nature divide ever made much sense-and I doubt that myself-then it's surely on its last legs today.

This revives all sorts of curly questions over what conservation really means. What are we conserving if not nature? And if not nature, then shouldn't we pick a more appropriate term than "conserve"? Alternatives like "rewilding" seem to both grasp and to miss the point.

But the more pressing question is what the Anthropocene means for our environmental responsibilities.

It's tempting to think - and a few fatalists do - that the Anthropocene absolves us from any responsibility. "If nature doesn't exist," we might ask, "then why are we wasting money trying to save it?" But this cynical perspective relies heavily on the idea that "pure nature" is the only thing worth saving.

Meanwhile, it's obvious that many landscapes and species are worth defending, even after they've been affected by humans. That's as relevant for urban green spaces as the Amazon rainforest, which evolved alongside megafauna that humans made extinct around 12,000 years ago.

KereruDOC's Battle for Our Birds has been framed in war-like terms. Photo: CC BY-SA 2.0 Duncan / Flickr

Instead we might turn to the time-honoured principle that we ought to take responsibility for the consequences of our actions. In the age of the Anthropocene, where nothing is unaffected by humans, it isn't enough to simply fence off "nature" to passively protect it. We have an obligation to actively intervene, to take responsibility for what's going on in the world.

It's no coincidence that contemporary conservation policies, like DOC's Battle for Our Birds, are framed in terms of war, rather than heritage. Whether it's 1080 drops in forests, or habitat restoration around waterways, or relocating endangered species to predator-free islands - these are human interventions that defend and enrich certain things we value.

This isn't to undermine the integrity of our conservation projects, but to highlight how much they rely on us, whether in terms of labour, expertise or public funding. If we don't make a deliberate effort, if we don't plan to protect what's valuable to us, then we'll lose it-and it'll be entirely our own fault.

But accepting responsibility also involves making difficult choices and trade-offs. There are far too many to mention here, let alone to answer. But here are some examples from a topic close to my heart: Our Forest Future.
  • Given the risks of climate change, should we convert vast swathes of our productive land to forests, even if it's less profitable than agriculture?
  • Should we plant Pinus radiata instead of native trees, because pines grow faster and therefore sequester more carbon over the short-term?
  • If we're worried about wilding pines, should we open the doors to genetic engineering and cultivate sterile pines that can't regenerate on their own?
Fortunately, these choices aren't as stark as I've sketched them here. But the first step to a more nuanced decision is to recognise these as choices to be made, and to recognise our responsibility for making them.

Perhaps this sounds like a roundabout route to anthropocentrism. Perhaps it sounds like I'm reducing conservation to a branch of engineering.

But what interests me is the very humbling idea that we're a part of what we once called 'nature', that we're inseparable from the world around us. It's something like the idea of kaitiakitanga, and the system of utu that underlies it, the idea that we should strive for balance through reciprocity with our surroundings.

In other words, we should give as well as take, invest as well as use, because human well-being is inseparable from the well-being of the places we inhabit.
That's not just a thought for Conservation Week, but a thought for decades, and hopefully centuries, to come.

*David Hall is a political theorist and environmental researcher, currently undertaking research on afforestation policy at the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Victoria University of Wellington. He wrote the Our Forest Future report for Pure Advantage and recently completed a doctorate at University of Oxford.

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