On the Anthropocene, Nature, and the end of Conservation?!

The Earth at night, a composited night-time image of the world during the anthropocene.

The Earth at night, a composited night-time image of the world during the anthropocene.
Image by Craig Mayhew and Robert Simmon, NASA GSFC.

Uppsala, Sweden | 18 August 2014 | by Florian Krampe

When I first learned about the concept of the anthropocene from my friend and colleague Gerald Roche, the topic intrigued me as much as it confused me. In this post I want to share some reflections that this concept triggered. I do not claim that these are correct. These are my thoughts and I am happy to be advised otherwise and am interested in your comments and challenges to this initial reading and reflection on the concept of the anthropocene and its implications.

You never go back
Frankly, initially I contested the concept. How can humans cause a shift in a geological epoch? Doesn’t it require something much bigger – more volatile – to change geology?

The Encyclopedia of Earth defines the Anthropocene as “Earth’s most recent geologic time period as being human-influenced, or anthropogenic, based on overwhelming global evidence that atmospheric, geologic, hydrologic, biospheric and other earth system processes are now altered by humans.” Having studied climate change in relation to peace and conflict for some years now, I could not object to this statement. The anthropocene had caught me! And once you accept that earth as such – not in parts, but in entirety – is affected by humans, you do not look at the landscape around you the same way ever again. I remember something similar after reading Foucault – you simply do not look at the world as you did before.

“Nature” becomes manipulated by humans – by design and accident. Effectively, you start searching for it: Forests? All I see is forestation. Even untouched territories are defined by their lack of human influence. Rivers? You start to realise how many of them are, in fact, river and flood management not to speak of “renaturation”.

Nowhere did this become clearer to me than on a recent trip to France (having grown up in the industrial heart land of Germany “nature” was anyway often far away). All of a sudden the hills of Provence and the Cote d’Azur were nothing other than the result of centuries of human impact. Circles of farming and deforestation going hand in hand to fuel the growth of the big city. Nature?

The death of “nature”?
The inevitable question that came to my mind after thinking about the anthropocene and the shift in our understanding of the world became inevitably: where does this leave nature?! When everything today is effected by human activity, than nature – defined as “the physical world and everything in it (such as plants, animals, mountains, oceans, etc.) that is not made by people” – does not exist. It simply vanishes! 

Conservation a meaningless tautology?
The logic of the anthropocene is simple and extremely powerful. And as I say, once you accept the principle you will have difficulties looking at the world in the same way again. But what does that mean for our policies directed towards nature? In short, with the realisation that humans carried the world into the geological epoch of the anthropocene, among other things, conservation dies as well. If nature does not exist, conservation can no longer be about the protection of nature.

In fact, doesn’t it simply become the alteration and manipulation of the anthropogenic face of the earth in the way that environmentally cautious politicians and conservationists believe that it resembles nature? A fictional vision of the face of the earth without human activity? Strongly put, if we think of our world in terms of the anthropocene, don’t nature and conservation become a meaningless tautology?!

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