Ethics in the Anthropocene

May 27, 2011

Last week in Stockholm, humanity was put on trial. Almost 20 Nobel laureates showed up for jury duty at the third Nobel Laureate Symposium. There they heard about "how [humanity's] vast imprint on the planet's environment has shifted the Earth into a new geological period labeled the 'Anthropocene'--the Age of Man."

After deliberation, the Nobelists rendered a verdict as part of the Stockholm Memorandum (pdf), reporting that humans have become the most significant driver of global change. While schoolchildren are taught that we are still in the Holocene--the epoch that began after the last ice age, roughly 12,000 years ago--the symposium's scientists argue that we have transgressed the planetary boundaries that have kept civilizations safe for this long.

There's no question that humans have become "capable of leaving a durable imprint in the geological record." But is this necessarily a bad thing?

In a New York Times forum called The Age of Anthropocene: Should We Worry? ecologist Erle C. Ellis makes an interesting point: we can either write the planet off as irrecoverably ruined, or we can redefine what the orienting "good" is in environmental ethics. "This is where it gets tricky," he says:

What "good" replaces pristineness? Biodiversity? Ecosystem services that benefit humans? Historical fidelity? Beauty? The most pleasure for the most sentient species?

Environmentalism often takes a preservationist angle; its aim has been to make minimal changes to pristine habitats. But now many habitats are so clearly "artificial" that preservationism seems pointless.

Habitats and species evolve in a complex system of interdependence. This is a difficult concept to grasp. How are we Christians to think about and rethink our responsibilities in this era?

Some see new opportunities for generosity: for attentive practical reasoning, greater devotion and covenantal responsibility. "Because the world is a commonwealth of interdependent creatures in common dependence on God," writes theologian Douglas F. Ottati,

[and] because the telos of God's world is the radically transformative and inclusive community, acknowledged relationships and communities of interdependence enhance possibilities for true virtue, for life, or for appropriately faithful participation in God's world.

However we define this new epoch, the issues we face are international in scope, and they will demand clear ethical frameworks.