SUMMARY: From Berlin, top enviro journalist Christian Schwagerl on his controversial new book “The Anthropocene: The Human Era and How It Shapes Our Planet”. Then two eco-feminists, Charlene Spratnak and Susan Griffin on “Techno-Utopianism and the Fate of the Earth.” Radio Ecoshock 141126
Are humans changing the planet so much that we have entered a new geological age? They call it the anthropocene, and we don’t know if that’s good. Our first guest from Berlin, Christian Schwagerl, literally wrote the book on it.
Then we’ll hear a different view from two eco-feminists, American Green Party founder Charlene Spretnak, and author Susan Griffin.
First, to Berlin. Are we ready for technature, and human creation of new life forms?
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I received an invitation to read a book newly coming out for English readers. The title is “The Anthropocene: The Human Era and How It Shapes Our Planet”. Little did I know how deep and disturbing this adventure into ideas would become.
The author is Christian Schwagerl. He’s been one of the best environmental journalists in Berlin for 25 years. Christian holds a Master of Science degree himself.
When the first German version of this book was published as Menshcenzeit, or the Age of Humans – the head of the United Nations Environment Programme, Achim Steiner spoke at the book launch.
From the launch, a series of German museums and cultural centers created an Anthropocene project – funded directly by the German Parliament. It became a “Welcome to the Anthropocene” exibit.
The Press Release for the book said:
“The book takes a hopeful look at our ecological crises and the solutions we’re employing to correct our current trajectory toward a positive and sustainable future. It contains a foreword by Paul Crutzen, the scientist who popularized the term ‘Anthropocene’ – a new geological epoch in which humanity has the dominant influence on the planet’s ecosystems.“
I wrote back that I was far less hopeful about our prospects, but Christian was willing to take on all questions, and did.
We can’t understand the Anthropocene, or the movement developing around it, without knowing about the famous scientist Paul Crutzen. While Crutzen didn’t coin the word , he brought it into reality when he stammered out to a group of scientists meeting in Mexico “we are already in the Anthropocene”. That began a whole new branch of science.
In the book, Christian writes:
“Crutzen had melded humans and nature (two entities that I had previously thought of as separate, opposing forces), into a whole new science-driven idea. It described a connection that reaches back into the past and far into the future. After seeing, at first hand rainforests burning, land made toxic from mining, and species on the brink of extinction, this idea gave me hope that our ever evolving human consciousness might be about to enter a new phase.“
Among too many accomplishments to list here, Paul Crutzen won the 1995 Noble prize for chemistry for his work on the ozone hole. Schwagerl spent a lot of time with Crutzen, and spoke at the scientist’s 80th birthday celebration, recorded in a You tube video you can see here. After a few minutes of formalities, it becomes a riveting speech, I think.
Of course, his hero Paul Crutzen added to our fears – when Crutzen suggested we need some kind of technocracy run by scientists and engineers, including geoengineering to save the climate. Even in his old age, Crutzen refused to promise hope we will conquer the problems we’ve created on this planet.
I liked Schwagerl’s concept of a “Club of Revolutionaries” – the organisms which changed Earth. The early book chapters sparkle with amazing things I didn’t know. For example, blue-green algae, or now the whole group known as cyanobacteria. They created the oxygen we breath, using solar power – extraterrestrial chemistry!
However, the further I went into this book, the more uneasy I became. But then Schwagerl isn’t afraid to face the questions we all must face.
For example, he writes: “Wild nature no longer exists on land or out at sea….What remains of the wild is the result of human decision-making, such as when an area is perceived as being of lasting value and is then protected by the local population or by environmental organizations, or by a corporation that concludes that exploitation would not be profitable.“
I don’t like that idea at all! It may be easier for a European to say that all wilderness exists only because we say so. But in North America there are still plenty of wild spaces. But then I wonder, if that’s only because governments proclaim them as parks, or only because mining and lumber companies haven’t got there yet. Maybe he’s right, even if it’s unpleasant.
“Thus, there is no ‘environment’ any longer that surrounds our civilization. We are living in an ‘invironment,’ a new nature that is strongly shaped by human needs and that has no outside.“
– Christian Schwagerl
Chapter Five is titled “Apocalypse No”. He says the idea of the Anthropocene is in fact “anti-Apocalyptic”. I ask him to explain that.
In the book “The Anthropocene” he writes: “Even if climate change turns out to be worse than scientists at the IPCC fear, it will not lead to the end of the world or the collapse of civilization. This won’t even come to pass if climate change, food crises and cyber wars all occur simultaneously.“
Really? If the climate warms by 6 degrees or more in less than 200 years, you think civilization will still stand? It turns out even Schwagerl thinks that would be a miserable world, one he wouldn’t want to live in, but some kind of human organization will continue. I found the man behind the book is not a seller of false hopes, but a very real person with deep experience.
A later chapter is equally frightening to me. The title is “Directing Evolution“. Who is going to “direct evolution”? Will it be triumphant Jihadists, or a little cabal of multi-billionaires. Democracy is more or less dead here in North America. So who is going to direct evolution? Monsanto, I presume?
“Future technology has to consist of machines, materials and molecules that adapt to the biologic cycles of earth instead of perturbing them, and they have to enrich earth with life-enhancing stimuli instead of discharging poisons. What is needed, therefore, is a diff erent, new ‘nature of technology, ‘an evolution whereby technology adapts to its environment.“
– Christian Schwagerl
There has been a small debate, from Andy Revkin in the New York Times to Elizabeth Kolbert, about whether there can be a “good anthropocene”. Schwagerl wraps up his new book with his personal vision of how things might not turn out so badly as many think. I ask him to take us on that tour of how we may survive ourselves. He has a possible vision.
As far as science goes, the issue of whether humans have created a new age will be decided by a special panel of scientists in 2016. The group is called the Anthropocene Working Group of The Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy), headed by the geologist Jan Zalasiewicz, from the University of Leicester.
Our recent Radio Ecoshock speaker Kathleen Dean Moore thinks “Anthropocene Is the Wrong Word” (published in the Earth Island Journal in the Spring of 2013).
The book “The Anthropocene: The Human Era and How It Shapes Our Planet” is available now from Synergetic Press, at the very reasonable price of just $10 for the paperback. The electronic version is coming soon.
Note: there is already a new scientific journal for this “New Epoch”: Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene.
EARLY GERMAN ECO SCI-FI
The German sci-fi author mentioned in this interview is Alfred Doblin. Find an interesting bio of this struggling writer here in Wikipedia.
The novel Christian references is the 1924 work “Berge Meere und Giganten” (Mountains Seas and Giants”. Wiki says:
“Döblin’s 1924 science fiction novel recounts the course of human history from the 20th to the 27th century, portraying it as a catastrophic global struggle between technological mania, natural forces, and competing political visions. Berge Meere und Giganten (Mountains Seas and Giants) presciently invokes such topics as urbanization, the alienation from nature, ecological devastation, mechanization, the dehumanization of the modern world, as well as mass migration, globalization, totalitarianism, fanaticism, terrorism, state surveillance, genetic engineering, synthetic food, the breeding of humans, biochemical warfare, and others. Stylistically and structurally experimental, it was regarded as a difficult work when it first came out and has often polarized critics. Among others, Günter Grass has praised the novel’s continued relevance and insight”
That is from the main Wikipedia entry for Doblin. You can find out more about this early German eco novel here.
TECHNO-UTOPIANISM AND FEMINISM
It seems appropriate that we are now going to two speakers from the recent conference “Techno-Utopianism and the Fate of the Earth.” It was held in New York City on October 25th and 26th, 2014. This teach-in was presented by the International Forum on Globalization and the New York Open Center. It was recorded by Dale Lehman or WZRD radio in Chicago (which also broadcasts Radio Ecoshock..
In the show, I’m reversing the order of speakers at the conference, starting with Charlene Spretnak on “The Resurgence of the Real”.
Charlene Spretnak is a founder of the U.S. Green Party, author, and eco-feminist.
The next speaker from the forum “Techno-Utopians and the Fate of the Earth” is the famous eco-feminist Susan Griffin. Her topic is “Women & Nature” Speed, Consciousness & Quantification”. Find Susan’s web site here.
To meet our time limitations, I removed a few minutes of Susan Griffin’s comments on education in the United States. Here is a link to the full talk.
You can see videos of the presentations and panel discussions here.
I’m sorry I don’t have the energy this week to give a full review of these worthy talks in my blog. If any listener would like to comment on these speakers, please do.
That’s it for this week. Join me again for Radio Ecoshock.
I’m Alex Smith.