Monday, April 22, 2013

Five notable books on growing up in the Anthropocene

"The essential idea behind [the term "Anthropocene"]," writes Caspar Henderson, author of The Book of Barely Imagined Beings, "is that the impact of humanity as a whole on the Earth system – notably through destruction of natural habitats and a rapid increase in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases – is now so great as to mark a new epoch in the history of life."

At The Browser, Henderson tagged five top books on growing up in the Anthropocene, including:
The Techno-Human Condition by Braden Allenby and Daniel Sarewitz

Henderson: Climate change is likely to be a huge challenge in this century and beyond, but it's unlikely to be the only one. Some challenges may come as a surprise but among those we think we can see coming are how we will feed nine to twelve billion humans, how we will keep a lid on deadly conflict and how we will increase the likelihood that what is most valuable and marvelous in the rest of the living world thrives.

Responses and debate often focus on how science and technology can “save” us. Sure, there will be no solutions without advances in science and technology. Equally surely, science and technology alone almost never provide a solution. Technical advances usually bring unforeseen consequences. More importantly, poor political and social choices can lead to terrible outcomes.

There is a large and serious literature emerging on how to “manage” the planet in the Anthropocene. Books for non-specialists include Mark Lynas's The God Species and Al Gore's The Future. There is also a growing array of writers and thinkers who are sceptical of the very idea of planetary management, often accusing the “managers” of overly simplistic analysis and recommendations. I recommend Allenby and Sarewitz's book not because it is especially critical of, say, geo-engineering – in fact their first target is transhumanism – but because it can help the reader to think more clearly about the actual complexity and inherent unpredictably of the situation in which we find ourselves. They are not suggesting that we should cease to act rationally or ethically, just that we understand more fully our ignorance about most complex systems, not least the human context for science and technology and our frequent inability to control them. We need, they say, to “add a degree of psychological and institutional flexibility that acknowledges and dignifies our ignorance and limits. Rehabilitate humility.” This is, if you like, about thinking slow as well as thinking fast about the planet, and there is nothing here that a good and wise scientist would disagree with. Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist who has looked carefully into geo-engineering, stresses the uncertainties – and, by the way, emphasizes that other options such as reducing emissions are likely to be cheaper and more effective. The late Carl Woese, one of the most eminent biologists of recent times, argued that our first priority should be “not to engineer nature but to listen to its harmonies.”

Science and technology are key to our future but even more important are the ethical and political challenges we have to overcome if we are truly to grow up in the Anthropocene. If Jared Diamond was right in Collapse, societies disintegrate when those in charge cease to think about the interests of the people as a whole. This looks like one of the clear and present dangers facing us today. To find the resources to fight the necessary battles we need to find strength inside ourselves. This means allowing plenty of room for the inner child to play. Music, the arts and the sciences, which are making discoveries of surpassing beauty almost daily, can help us find plenty of space, amidst all the uncertainty, for wonder and celebration.
Read about another book Henderson tagged at The Browser.

--Marshal Zeringue