Upon reading the first three sections of Simon Nicholson and Paul Wapner’s new anthology on the current state of the planet, I was struck by how succinct and compelling each of the short articles were that comprise the book. The volume is clearly made for a classroom setting, and I felt the content was accessible to a wide range of readers. What was particularly striking though was the continual interweaving of both hope and despair carried by the various authors’ voices. For example, Alex Steffen’s chapter “Humanity’s Potential,” while not naïvely optimistic, still gave me the sense that if we lose ourselves to pessimism we will actually be in a worse situation than if we engaged the crisis with some sense of hope. Hope is not certainty of outcome; I feel hope is something deeper, perhaps more akin to faith.
On the other hand, Stephen Meyer’s essay “End of the Wild” carries within it a true and necessary sense of mourning of the inevitable extinction of species accelerating on the planet due to the activities of our own singularly prolific species. Meyer makes the distinction that while there is nothing we can do to save the loss of the wild this is no reason to not do anything. He concludes:
The end of the wild does not mean a barren world. There will be plenty of life. It will just be different: much less diverse, much less exotic, far more predictable, and—given the dominance of weedy species—probably far more annoying. We have lost the wild. Perhaps in 5 to 10 million years it will return.
His final note is clearly one of despair and grief, deep emotions we must allow ourselves to feel if we are to engage with this crisis in any realistic way.
The book opens with two essays that both address the name of the new geologic epoch into which humanity has ushered the planet: the Anthropocene. Elizabeth Kolbert and Charles Mann both speak to the meaning and uses of this term: whether to use it ironically or seriously, what the impact of naming the epoch might be, when one might date the beginning of the Anthropocene—whether from the invention of agriculture, the Industrial Revolution, or even further into the future when the effects of climate change are absolutely undeniable. The question that continued to arise for me in relation to the term Anthropocene is, will it awaken humanity to the fact we have become a force of planet Earth as powerful as the geologic and hydrologic cycles and that we must take responsibility for this power, or will it reinforce the anthropocentric hubris that led us to this crisis in the first place?
Nicholson, Simon and Paul Wapner, ed. Global Environmental Politics. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2015.
 Stephen Meyer, “End of the Wild,” in Global Environmental Politics, ed. Simon Nicholson and Paul Wapner (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2015), 57.
5 Replies to “Thoughts on “Global Environmental Politics””
Politics and Systems Theory – a match made in heaven. It seems like there’s always more to any problem than meets the eye. A great topic for an Fe type.
There is never a lack of [political] polarity here in Alaska, as demonstrated by high temperature swings, extreme isolation, and well as the opposition of natural beauty and industrial profitability. When it comes to Alaskan environmental politics, the left is generally lost in environmental pessimism and the right is generally lost in industrial optimism. It seems to me like they are both right and everyone would benefit from learning to learn from the other a little more.
In “The Universe in a Single Atom” (http://www.amazon.com/The-Universe-Single-Atom-Spirituality/dp/0767920813), the Dalai Lama uses his wonderfully complex-pedestrian style to invite the reader to consider the nature of the inevitable birth and death of worlds while also stimulating our conviction to do the best we can with this world while we have it. He also describes a concept of “faith” that is flexible enough to accommodate and even encourage continuing scientific discovery.
I get the feeling that even the elves would have eventually over-used the planet if left to their devices in middle earth, particularly the Noldor. I feel this because they still fought other beings, and even amongst themselves. I wonder if the Dagor Dagorath represents the end of the Anthropocene, or the end of the last Anthropocene….
That is an interesting question about the Elves. I do not get the sense that they would overuse the Earth as a resource because so much of their art and creativity, and also their shadow in Tolkien’s eyes, was around preservation. Because the Elves are immortal and bound to the circles of the world, their experience of times is always one of loss. Thus all that they create is meant to conserve and preserve, hoping to freeze in time that which they also feel they are losing. This is why Lothlórien feels like stepping into an ancient world, because it has been preserved through the power of Nenya, Galadriel’s Elven Ring. They are in a state of perpetual nostalgia, and thus cannot move forward and evolve. Rather they must leave Middle-Earth rather than stay in a changing world. This is the gift and the doom of humanity that Tolkien articulates: because humans die they can change and adapt, for good or for evil.
There is a helpful mythic perspective on the polarity of this critical issue: Chiron and Uranus (Prometheus), whose mythic stories are connected. All are welcome to a FREE webinar, “Saturn day” 1/31 from 1 to 2:30 pm PST, available via Kepler College, presented by Dale O’Brien
Thanks for your review of Global Environmental Politics. I keep my attention on all the ecological news of what’s going on on the planet, so the questions of optimism and pessimism are very familiar. I also am close to the “near-term human extinction” discussion on Guy McPherson’s “Nature Bats Last” website. After being immersed in global environmental politics for 30+ years, I have come to a place in my heart that is neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but deeper, a deep sense of grief at what is leaving the Earth because of us ~ humans.
However, genuine grief is not necessarily despair, but undefended heartbreak flavored with defiance. I refuse to give up fighting for Mother Earth, speaking out against the selfish, ignorant, small-mind machinations that are causing our fellow species to disappear. I accept that climate change is very likely to be so catastrophic that all complex life may be unable to survive the temperatures that methane emissions are likely to result in. But I will not accept rationalizations for why the powers that be have not been able to implement the necessary changes in industrial society that would have avoided the worst case scenario that is now unfolding.
Personally, I also do not accept the Anthropocene concept. I hate the very idea because it is obvious that humanity is not collectively mature enough to ‘manage’ this planet. The hubris that industrial capitalism has indulged in is an inexcusable self-deception. So is the refusal to heed The Limits to Growth, which has resulted in human population overshoot.
So inseparable Rage and Grief seems to be a more reasonable response to the catastrophe now unfolding. It is helpless rage and grief, for there is nothing to be done. It is too late. Of that I feel quite certain. The Arctic is melting and the methane is burping out, and the Antarctic ice sheet is melting too. But a thoughtful, sensitive, honest person has to find a way to face the truth while giving the soul a means of expressing itself.
After all, this lifetime and this planet may not be the final end of our life or our species. For me, facing this moment on this planet is a challenge to maintain integrity and authenticity, generosity and compassion. If indeed we do reincarnate, as we Buddhists believe (at least some of us), how we handle this incredible challenge matters a lot! Where we reincarnate next is a big question for me, considering that Earth may no longer be inhabitable. Personally, I’d like to go where all the extinct species go!
By the way, in case I haven’t told you this before, I owe a great deal to Brian Swimme and your father Rick Tarnas for my worldview, though I don’t hold them responsible. 😉
Suzanne, I really appreciate your comments. I too share a very similar perspective in terms of understanding that in many ways it is too late to avert the crisis humanity has set in motion. Yet this has not erased my deep sense of hope, which is the ground on which I stand when all else seems impossible. It is a hope based in the resiliency and creativity of the Earth itself, that after each mass extinction life has flourished in greater complexity, diversity, and beauty than before. And this too is where a world view that includes reincarnation feels so important, for we are participating in the Earth’s evolution not only in this time of crisis and destruction but also in the future. So much is a great mystery, and that too gives me hope, knowing I am participating in something much greater than myself and even than this human species. The term Anthropocene is certainly triggering: will it remind us as a species that we now hold greater responsibility in how we act in relation to the Earth, or will it reenforce the hubris that brought forth this crisis in the first place?
I particularly resonated with what you said about your deep sense of grief. In many ways I feel one of our roles in this time is to be witnesses to the suffering we as a species are causing and to hold space for that. To grieve alongside the dying creatures and even those of our own species whose lives will be so painfully affected, or even taken away, because of the unconscious actions of a relative few. We can grieve, we can take responsibility, and we can also have hope that for better or worse we are going through a powerful initiation. And like a true initiation or rite of passage, the outcome is uncertain.