The Anthropocene and the Psychology of Alarm

Not modern art, and, in an ironic fluke, not "Forever" in this USPS-released image. Welcome to the Anthropocene.

Not modern art, and, in an ironic fluke, not “Forever” either. Welcome to the Anthropocene. Landsat image of irrigated fields in Kansas. (The Postal Service apparently marks their digital images of stamps in this way so the image can’t be printed and used as a stamp).

Holy Moly, I’ve been too busy to function here. I was in New York City for most of the week before last taking students to this year’s Model UN convention, and now I’m scheduled to speak three times in the next two weeks on environmental subjects, and have been trying to get ready for those presentations. But, preparing has spurred some thought, along with ideas from the book “Ecological Intelligence” by Daniel Goleman, and a New York Times essay “Why Bother?“, by Michael Pollan (the latter short and well-worth reading—highly recommended).

To be more specific—one of those presentations I’m scheduled for I will give this week to (mostly) high-school students at the Vermont Global Issues Network Conference, in Rutland. I’m going to call it “A Time to Choose—Our Sustainability Crossroads”. It occurred to me that a logical starting point for this particular audience would be to address the question of whether or not we even have a problem. After all, as I’ve written before, we look out of the window in a bucolic rural state like ours, and nothing seems overly amiss. So I began gathering images to help me outline the big picture. Pictures of crowds, to represent the seven-billion-plus human population, pictures of huge, growing metropolises where these people live, and then other pictures of human impacts on the planet. First, how this expansion has been powered, in the last two-hundred years, by fossil fuels. Then, how the immense power they contain, combined with the immense power of the market system, has enabled humans to accomplish nearly unfathomable feats. We can use bulldozers and chainsaws to remove whole forests, we can create huge agricultural monocultures, we can literally move mountains (mountaintop-removal mining), and vacuum every fish from the sea. These powers have given us huge (but not complete) control over the planet; we are altering the world to such a degree that we may be entering what many scientists feel is a new geologic age, the “Anthropocene”, or Age of Man. It hasn’t been without consequence, and those consequences are continuing on, or even accelerating. Our actions have also engendered many unfortunate side-effects; they have given us global warming, rising sea levels, ocean acidification, massive use of pesticides and herbicides, extinctions, air and water pollution, soil erosion, heavy-metal contamination, groundwater depletion, a million more people on the planet every three or four days, desertification, and habitat loss, just to name a few. When the information in the above paragraph is viewed visually, as a series of stunning pictures, it’s enough to make even myself feel a bit freaked-out.

opening slide

And yet, despite these tremendous effects, there isn’t much alarm in the world. A bit here and there, with the likes of Al Gore making his “Inconvenient Truth” movie or Bill McKibben with his books and articles. But, for the most part, it’s business-as-usual, mixed with a bit of mild concern, at the most, or even outright denial. All is good, nothing to fear, take another plane trip, buy that boat, that bigger house… Why is this? Then, in a separate but related issue, who is to blame? Who exactly is the evil destroyer, ruining our world?

(Before I continue, let me pause and point out that some of the ideas here are mine, some are others’ that I have read, and some seem to be truths that have popped up independently in the minds of many people; a sort of collective intelligence emerging, perhaps. I’m not sure how to attribute ideas that I’ve thought of, but then subsequently read nearly verbatim in some article. Perhaps the standard rules of citation apply—if you can find it in more than five places, then it’s probably common knowledge, and doesn’t need attribution. That being said, what I know is undoubtedly based on the thinking and learning of a great many others.)

So, back to my two questions, and to answer the second question first—there is no evil destroyer. This has become ever more clear to me lately. The destroyer is us, all of us, by virtue of numbers. A wealthy Westerner trying to enjoy his weekend, citizens in an emerging economy building necessary new infrastructure, the impoverished cutting down forests to simply survive—every one of them diminishing the planet through their collective actions. There’s just too many of us, as of today 7,219,741,144, and growing by the second; births by the end of today will outstrip deaths by over 225,000.  As Michael Pollan puts it in the article I mentioned,

“…the climate-change crisis is at its very bottom a crisis of lifestyle—of character, even. The Big Problem is nothing more nor less than the sum total of countless little everyday choices, most of them made by us (consumer spending represents seventy percent of our economy), and most of the rest of them made in the name of our needs and desires and preferences.”

Pollan is talking about climate change here, but the same thought applies equally to all of our environmental problems. We’re simply going about our daily lives, but the way that we live our lives is bringing the planet to the brink.

NYT satelite image article pic

NASA image of pollution in India, from New York Times article “Gorgeous Glimpses of Calamity: Manmade Perils to the Universe’s Garden of Life are Evident from Space”.

Which brings us back to the first question, why no alarm over this seemingly calamitous course? It’s fairly apparent, from the long view, that we’re all caught up in a disastrous slow-motion crash. Here’s where Goleman, in his book “Ecological Intelligence”, has some insightful observations (again, they probably aren’t his alone; I’ve read similar things elsewhere, one such article here). First, according to Goleman, our problems are not only too big for us to fix alone, they’re too big for us to comprehend alone. Here’s why looking out the window isn’t enough to raise alarm. I haven’t personally seen the melting Arctic, the rainforest clearcuts in Indonesia to make room for palm oil plantations, or the rivers of the world pumped dry for agriculture. I’ve seen the photographs of others, or read their accounts, but I haven’t been there myself. Other things I couldn’t see even if I went and tried, the truth exists only as numeric trends over time, such as ever-diminishing groundwater levels, or the reduction of bluefin tuna numbers, or the steady increases in planetary temperature, or ocean acidity, or the rising height of the world’s oceans, or our increasing bodily loads of industrial chemicals, or the radiation at Fukashima. Then, an added factor that plays a huge effect here— the changes that are occurring are happening just slowly enough to be virtually invisible to a single person. As Goleman writes, our biological systems, designed over the millennia to protect us, just aren’t triggered to alarm by these events. A longer quote from his book is in order here—

“Our brains are exquisitely attuned to pinpoint and instantly react to a fixed range of dangers, those that fit within nature’s periscope. Nature hard-wired the brain’s alarm circuitry to spot and recoil immediately from objects hurtling toward us, threatening facial expressions, snarling animals, and like dangers in our immediate physical surroundings. That wiring helped us survive to the present. . .

“But nothing in our evolutionary past has shaped our brains for spotting less palpable threats like the slow heating of the planet, the insidious spread of destructive chemical particulates into the air we breathe or the food we eat, or the inexorable destruction of vast swaths of flora and fauna on our planet. . . the world we live in today presents us with abundant dangers we do not see, hear, taste, or smell. The brain’s threat response system is buffaloed time after time. . . our [brains are unsuited for the dangers] that come on gradually, or at the microscopic level, or globally.”

Goleman continues by discussing what psychologists call the “just-noticeable difference”, and concludes that virtually all of the dangers we face today occur below this threshold. Thus, no alarm. The damage is happening in too many ways that we can’t readily perceive. Goleman quotes Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert,

“Because we barely notice changes that happen gradually, we accept things we would not allow if they happened suddenly. The impurity of our air, our water, our food has increased dramatically in our lifetimes, but it happened one day at a time, transforming our world into an ecological nightmare that our grandparents never would have tolerated.”

So, to conclude, these two things—the understanding of why we don’t see or become alarmed by the problems, and the realization that there is no evil destroyer, but that we ourselves are causing this damage, leads me logically to an uncomfortable conclusion that I’ve been avoiding or skirting around for a year now. To wit—once we understand these truths, and I believe that they are indeed true, then we have a moral imperative to change. Not to do so is selfish; stealing benefits from other humans, other life, and from future generations. It’s selfish, too, in that others are working to fix these problems, at the same time our own actions are exacerbating them. By not changing, we’re mooching off of the system, and making others pay for our actions. That doesn’t mean that knowing exactly what to do or change is easy to figure out, but I believe we have a moral imperative to try. And, I’m in no way trying to be self-righteous here; I also face these difficult choices of what to change, and how much to change. Many options fall into wide swath of gray area, where our options are limited just by the nature of the economies that we live it. I’d love to take high-speed rail, powered by renewable electricity, to see my siblings and father in Texas. But, such systems don’t yet exist where I need them, to visit my family I’ll likely have to fly on a plane. Other choices are clearer—as much as I’d really like to fly to the Virgin Islands and embark from there on a weeks-long luxury cruise through the Panama Canal, I’m not sure I’ll ever again be able to justify such conspicuous consumption. I’ll have to replace such trips with hiking the Camino Santiago, or other trips with  lighter impacts.

Video above by Time Magazine; a dramatic video representation of collective human impacts over time.

I’ll close here in the same way I’m likely to close this presentation I’m making, by quoting something that Mark Shepard wrote on his facebook page the other day (he’s the author of “Restoration Agriculture”, see my post “An Important Piece of the Puzzle“) . I don’t think he would mind me posting it here—

“I ALWAYS WONDERED WHY SOMEBODY DIDN’T DO SOMETHING ABOUT THAT, AND THEN I REALIZED THAT I AM SOMEBODY. Together, I believe we can thrive in an ever-changing world. Together, I believe that we can create a more sustainable future. Together, I believe that we can change the world.”

Amen, brother.


Image credit: Center-pivot stamp– USPS.
Turbines in field– 123RF by tonarinokeroro, #18095255. Image has been cropped.
Tomatoes– 123RF by Orcea David, #9303784.
 Satellite image– NASA, via New York Times at