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For some, the idea of the Anthropocene honors humans. For others, it recognizes that human activity has grievously harmed the earth community. Disregard for the more-than-human world has brought humans to a tipping point, exacerbated by our soaring global population. Of all animal species, we are the only one to cause global catastrophe on such a scale as to prompt a mass extinction. This manmade extinction is the sixth in the planet’s history; all of the previous resulted from geologic and celestial disasters.
The notion of the Anthropocene is too congenial to our worst impulses.
The term “Anthropocene” in effect memorializes these harms and speaks to our sense of human exceptionalism—that is, our exclusion of all other living beings from the moral circle. Human privilege and superiority over nonhumans is assumed in virtually everything we do. The result is that many humans have lost awareness of our species’ membership in the larger earth community and, as importantly, their own animality. This failure of moral imagination does not affect only the nonhuman world. Also at stake are significant harms to our human communities, our individual selves, and our children.
Purdy and other concerned citizens are often said to be seeking a “good Anthropocene,” one that would curtail humans’ broad harming of the earth and its communities, human and nonhuman alike. This vision of a good Anthropocene speaks to our capacious ethical abilities. However, I echo the sentiment of science writer Elizabeth Kolbert, who tweeted, “2 words that probably should not be used in sequence: ‘good’ & ‘anthropocene.’” In short, we should quake before the potential future in which the adjective “good” softens the blow of what is fundamentally a pattern of extinctions and grievous harms.
Some may unreflectively assume that human exceptionalism must at least be a boon for humans. However, today’s human-centered narrative promotes the privileges of only some humans. As many people of conscience note, the harms created by modern societies, including ever-growing consumption and climate disruption, undeniably have disadvantaged many humans. Less-than-careful uses of “Anthropocene” risk reinforcing such shortsightedness, as well as the power of elite, economically privileged humans to shape the earth for their own profit. In effect, the notion of the Anthropocene is too congenial to our worst impulses, which have already produced irreversible global destruction.
Purdy’s use of the food movement as a model may illuminate important issues. The food movement often seeks to bring greater attention to the welfare of both the humans and nonhumans involved in the production of what we eat. For food workers, this includes a focus on better-than-living wages, sustainable employment, and workplace safety. With regard to farmed animals, advocates of the food movement have sought to increase their quality of life and freedom of movement, fought for their safety and health (including limiting use of antibiotics and hormones), and insisted upon, at the very least, humane slaughter. Although these demands have often been made for aesthetic reasons, they suggest a nascent ethics of responsibility for the welfare of the nonhuman animals with whom we share our lives. While these minimally humane changes only scratch the surface of what will be necessary to create a livable interspecies future, they nonetheless open a door through which we can better see the possibilities we have as responsible citizens of a shared, more-than-human world.
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