Robyn Hannigan, the Founding Dean of the School for the Environment at UMass Boston, agreed to answer my questions about the Anthropocene, which is being widely discussed as a new age in which humans are writing their name across nature, not always positively, but more deeply and indelibly than ever. Dr. Hannigan, who believes diverse perspectives enrich science and make it exciting, is sharing her perspective and insights on one of the newer and more controversial scientific wrinkles.
Barbara Lewis: What does the Anthropocene mean to you?
Robyn Hannigan: The Anthropocene is a construct designed to define a period in our planet’s history where human impacts on the Earth’s systems are driving many of the changes we see from climate to biodiversity loss. It is important, for me as a geologist, to distinguish what is a truly evidence-based and what is a construct designed to allow us to more accurately capture the role of humans in Earth system function. As a geologist, the Anthropocene is maddening as it introduces a misrepresentation of the science behind how we measure geologic time. The International Commission on Stratigraphy is the organizing body that defines geologic time based on scientific evidence, which includes global evidence of faunal and floral change (extinction or radiation events), global changes in climate (such as ice ages, etc.). These changes can only be examined and recognized in retrospect through the rock record. It is possible to propose that the Holocene (the current geologic epoch we are in today, which began 11,700 years ago, with the end of the last ice age) has ended and a new epoch, the Anthropocene, has begun. Still, the boundary between the Holocene and Anthropocene, in the rock record, must be a geographically distributed and universally recognized boundary. It is currently a proposal but will not be approved unless the criteria set by the ICS are met and then with the approval of the ICS itself can it become a real geologic epoch.
The idea embodied by the Anthropocene, that humans impact their environment, is not new.
In brief, it is simply a recognition by the scientific community (and increasingly by decision makers and the public) that humans have had and continue to have a significant impact on Earth’s systems. Thousands of years from now, the impact of humans on these systems will be recognizable in the rock record, thus defining the end of the Holocene.
BL: Do you consider the Anthropocene new or not new?
RH: The idea embodied by the Anthropocene, that humans impact their environment, is not new. Rather it is embedded throughout human history in the stories we tell, in the myths and legends of peoples across the world. What is new is the deepening of the linkages between the science of global change and the role humans have in these changes and their long-term consequences.
BL: Given that the human impact at the center of the Anthropocene reflects primarily how the wealth and the business stratum have exploited nature without considering consequences, are we in America and the other developed countries, just saying: “Apres moi, la deluge?“
RH: Our economy, like many, is an extraction-exploitation economy with natural resources valued based on the ability to extract and exploit them for financial gain. This mentality necessarily devalues natural systems and in so doing devalues the communities who depend upon them for survival. Over the past few centuries as we, in industrial nations, became better and better at extraction and exploitation of natural resources we have necessarily become separate from nature. This separation from nature leads to placing values on ecosystem goods and services that directly relate to the capacity to extract and exploit. Ecosystems which appear to have no extraction value (no natural gas, no mineral resources) or exploitation value (no food production capacity) are considered “worthless” and so we build on them, pave over them, or knock them down. However, those countries where humans are not separate from nature, where the pastoral ethic or indigenous ecological knowledge persists do not operate on an extraction-exploitation framework and so have not systematically devalued essential resources. Yet, because what the global community is asking these nations to do is to shift their economies to our mode of operation and in so doing make the same mistakes of separation from nature which will only serve to more negatively impact our planet. So, of course, we are, as humans do, kicking the can down the road where we will find, if we make it that far, the least among us buried beneath cans kicked decades ago.
As we strive to protect our natural systems and the human communities who depend on them, we need to deepen our mutual understanding of the values that underpin our decision-making.
BL: What would be the best, mutually profitable alliance to forge on this campus between humanities and environmental faculty?
RH: As we strive to protect our natural systems and the human communities who depend on them, we need to deepen our mutual understanding of the values that underpin our decision-making. In the School of the Environment, we will be launching a new BA in Environmental Studies and Sustainability that is designed to bring together the sciences and humanities to train a new generation of environmental problem solvers. We also offer a Community Development BA designed to train professionals who work with a breadth of communities from underserved communities to natural resource dependent communities to integrate environmental stewardship and planning into advancing prosperity for all. These two programs combined with our BS/BA in Environmental Sciences and our graduate programs in Urban Planning and Community Development, Environmental Sciences, and Marine Science and Technology are all designed to train a new generation of transdisciplinary scholars.
The knowledge of ecosystems in literature, art, classics, religion, and the scientific knowledge of indigenous peoples across the planet need to be integrated into the current state of science about our planet and into our policymaking process.
Our faculty were not trained this way. To really make a difference in higher education the faculty, and indeed the institutions, must be able to move fluidly across disciplinary boundaries. To me the best possible alliance would be to craft a mechanism where humanities and environmental faculty could work together to solve critical real issues facing our planet. The knowledge of ecosystems in literature, art, classics, religion, and the scientific knowledge of indigenous peoples across the planet need to be integrated into the current state of science about our planet and into our policymaking process. At UMass Boston, we have a profound opportunity to re-shape the role of higher education in leading change. Our planet and its people need us to step up, to change how we train students, how we support and reward faculty, and how we disseminate our knowledge.
BL: What wisdom, if any, is to be gained from looking back at the way native and other nature-reverent communities interacted with nature?
RH: Wow. That is hard to summarize. What is wisdom but having experience and knowledge and who would know more about how local ecosystems function than the communities who have been lived side by side with nature for centuries? When you look at what we’ve done, for example, to coastal wetlands in the US you can see firsthand what the exploration-exploitation mindset has wrought and, conversely in looking to regions where humans and nature are still deeply connected, what opportunities for prosperity remain. Look to New Orleans and the destruction of coastal wetlands and human insistence on building in an area known to historically flood and be inhabitable. Our willful ignorance of nature and our can-do spirit of ingenuity led us to construct a city where no city should be. Nature continues to try to take back what is hers and yet we persist, as humans I suppose must, to fight back the tides of change. Look at the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw people of Louisiana who have lived on Isle de Jean Charles for over 8 generations. As mainland engineering changed coastal Louisiana allowing people to settle in areas previously subject to storms and tides, the native people of this island lived in harmony with nature understanding the ebb and flow of tides, shifting their use of resources to ensure sustainable food, clothing, and shelter. Now, in light of climate change, this community is forced to relocate as rising sea levels and the resulting erosion of the island. Imagine the wealth of knowledge this community has on how to live sustainably in collaboration with nature. Will we lose this knowledge as we will surely lose the land?