Reimagining the Anthropocene

Can we reimagine humanity’s relationship with nature?

By Pei Ling Gan

We are constantly bombarded by media reports about how humanity is wreaking havoc on the Earth’s ecosystems these days. From industrial pollution, deforestation to species extinction, the common narrative is often one of doom and gloom.

Are humans really a bane to Earth? Some 40 scholars and activists passionate about the environment came together to discuss alternative narratives at the University of Oxfordon 3 May 2014.

Yadvinder Malhi, Professor of Ecosystem Science at Oxford University, said humans have either been portrayed as rational, noble agents or something akin to a destructive virus in environmental narratives.

He believes a more realistic alternative could lay between the two extremes – that of a trickster.

“It’s a character that’s smart, often too smart for it’s own good, not evil or ill-intentioned but always getting into trouble, but also capable of [doing] extraordinary, creative [stuff],” said the scientist at the one-day conference titled “Reimagining the Anthropocene”.

The Anthropocene, coined by ecologist Eugene Stoermer, refers to an era humans began to exert pervasive influence on Earth’s ecosystems including the climate.

If we adopt the trickster narrative as Malhi suggested, then humans could be reimagine as mischievous, vain creatures who sometimes mess up ecosystems big time. Yet, we are also capable of adapting our civilisations to live in harmony with nature again.

Malhi’s colleague, Thomas Thornton, also believes it is possible to reconceptualise the Anthropocene, particularly across different spaces and time.

While Western societies have came to perceive humans as separate from nature over the centuries, Thornton pointed out that many other cultures do not distinguish the two.

“Many have phrases that refer to ‘deep time’, when the earth’s elements including humans and non-humans were less differentiated, or in a different order altogether,” he said.

The myths and stories indigenous peoples pass down to their children may well provide more nuanced narratives of human beings’ place in nature.

“Indigenous peoples have a lot to share: their unique cultures, local knowledge about their environments,” said Ishmeal Hope, an Alaskan native storyteller.

Hope told the audience indigenous oral histories of environmental change might even correlate with geological records, such as the story of raven he has learnt from his Tlingit elders.

Joji Carino, a native from the Philippines, believes it’s about time for Western environmental narratives that overwhelmingly view humanity as a negative force on nature to be contested.

Indigenous peoples who have been exploited by colonisers and corporations for the wealth of their forests, rivers or oceans worldwide have often been excluded from global environmental narratives.

“The historical legacies of colonialism on indigenous peoples [as well as their environments] must be re-embedded in discussions on the Anthropocene,” said the director of the Forest Peoples Programme.

Andre Reichel, a sustainability researcher from Germany, shocked the audience when he told them he believes the Anthropocene is ending, if not already over.

He said the three pillars of modernity: high-energy sources, industrialisation and economic growth are eroding as we speak. 

The process of extracting energy is increasingly costlier, industrialisation is reaching an impasse with globalisation while economic growth is slowing and would eventually come to an end, he predicts.

Regardless if you buy Reichel’s prediction, the world does need a new “development” paradigm – one that takes into account ecological sustainability and social justice.

The dialogue was followed by an engaging question and answer session with the audience, made up mostly of Oxford University’s Geography Department postgraduate students and Chevening students.

One of them highlighted that middle and low-income countries still need economic growth to reduce poverty and raise the standard of living of their populations. Thus, the environmental narratives of developing countries will be tied to yet distinct from those of industrialised countries.

As Thornton said earlier: “The Anthropocene is about places-made, unmade and remade in novels ways, according to the unique exigencies of human life [on Earth].”

We need diverse narratives – from indigenous peoples, industrialised societies, developing nations, people of different gender and class – to enrich the understanding of our complex relationships with nature. Perhaps there is where we will find hope.

After the lunch break, the participants attended a storytelling workshop hosted by Hope and had a fun time re-enacting scenes from a Tlingit myth.

“Reimagining the Anthropocene” is a scholar-led event organised by Chevening scholar June Rubis, who is reading MSc Environmental Change and Management at OxfordUniversity.

The event is sponsored by the Chevening secretariat and the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford.