This essay is a response to “Redefining the Anthropocene,” by Erik Molvar, which was published on Counterpunch on May 13, 2021. I recommend that it be read first.
First let me first stress that I am not calling out Molvar personally or even specifically here. As a staunch opponent of livestock grazing on public lands, I greatly value the work of the Western Watersheds Project, of which Molvar is the executive director, and I definitely encourage people to support the organization. As for my critique of his article, what I see as an omission his part is common in environmental circles and is by no means his alone. Also, as I attempt to illustrate a bigger picture, I depart from the context of his article, and it’s entirely possible that we are in accord once I do so, and that his omission was merely an oversight.
Secondly, I totally agree with Molvar that we must work to restore “natural, functioning ecosystems” on the planet, and that this work must include both the prevention of “artificially-caused extinctions” and the protection of “healthy ecosystems.” I also support the campaign he mentions that seeks to safeguard 30% of the planet by 2030 and 50% by 2050.
Where Molvar falls short, in my opinion, is in the view he presents of “humanity.” To illustrate what I mean, here are a few snippets:
- “I propose a new definition of the Anthropocene, as the age in which humanity has become not only recklessly out of balance with nature but also an overwhelming negative force of ecological destruction.”
- “By recognizing the Anthropocene as the period where humankind has gotten out of balance with nature…”
- “It’s our fault, as a species. All of it… That’s where humanity, with our monomania for economic growth and exploitation of natural resources, is right now as a species.”
What’s missing in these quotations, and indeed in the rest of the article, is any reference to indigenous humanity, past or present. I contend that with that omission, we cannot comprehend what “natural, functioning ecosystems” are nor how to return to behaviors that encourage them.
This is for two reasons:
1) Many of the “natural, functioning ecosystems” we hope to restore included indigenous humans as a key element. They were participants in the dynamic equilibrium of their ecologies as much as the flora, fauna, fungus, etc. We can compare their absence to the lack of any other species, like Buffalo to prairies, Beavers to riparian zones, or Wolves everywhere. When they are gone, nothing works the same as it did.
2) As “civilized” humans, we are handicapped by cultural traditions that not only disconnect us from what is wild, collectively and individually, but actively work to suppress what is wild. We’ve got too much baggage and too many blinders to take on the task of wild restoration on our own. We need the help of our indigenous kin to find our way back. (Note: coming from a primitivist perspective, I use the terms “civilized” and “civilization” in a literal sense to denote urban/agricultural societies as opposed to gatherer-hunter/wildtending cultures, and do not attach a positive or admirable value to them.)
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All over the world, many ecosystems that are considered “natural” or “wild” from a contemporary perspective display clear signs of influence by indigenous humans in the past—often right up to the moment of colonization—influences that can be described as active, intentional management in many cases. This aspect of those ecosystems cannot be ignored when considering methodology and policy for their future treatment.
The history of such indigenous activity included plant propagation through seeds and roots. Whether particular instances were by accident or on purpose, the effects were real. For example, the “native ranges” of many undomesticated edible and medicinal plant species correspond to waves of human migration and follow trade routes. Ancient anthropogenic “assemblages” of wild food plants have proven to be quite tenacious, in some cases persisting for centuries after indigenous presence ceased.
Perhaps the best known example of an ostensibly “wild” place that is now understood to be the product of millennia of indigenous selection and caretaking is the Amazon rainforest (see, for example: The Supposedly Pristine, Untouched Amazon Rainforest Was Actually Shaped By Humans), but there are other forests where the the same signs are found, such as in the Pactific Northwest and Applachia. “Gardens” of indigenous-tended wild root crops are still present across the Great Basin, featuring plants like Yampah (genus Perideridia), the Biscuitroots (genus Lomatium), Sego lilies (genus Calochortus), and wild onions. Camas cultivation was also common across the West. In Europe, the sudden appearance of hazelnuts across the continent, “seemingly out of nowhere,” 9-10,000 years ago, is strongly suggestive of human introduction.
Also well known is indigenous human use of fire for ecological management at the landscape scale, which has been happening for nearly 100,000 years—since long before the Anthropocene—and has been practiced on every continent except Antarctica. Often the purpose was to preserve grassland from transitioning to forest, since that stage of succession has a higher concentration of food plants and is beneficial for hunting game animals. In the US Midwest, Buffalo habitat was expanded by Native Americans setting fires to enlarge the prairie. On the West Coast, Oak savanna was burned to exclude Fir trees and to suppress populations of insect pests that ate acorns. Aboriginal people in Australia used fire to “sustain biodiversity and suppress large bushfires.” Prehistoric humans in Europe purposefully ignited wildfires over 20,000 years ago.
So many of the landscapes that Europeans found upon arrival in the “New World” were the product of centuries or millennia of purposeful, thoughtful management. The forests of the East Coast had been kept so open that one could ride a horse through them on a gallop, it was reported; in some places, the settings were almost park-like. Because it was not agriculture per se, it was not recognized as anthropogenic, and people were simply amazed to find such high concentrations of berries, nuts and other food.
All of this is to say: Restoring a “natural, functioning” landscape in which indigenous humans were an integral component must include the return of indigenous human activity, with its attendant worldview and values.
This is an especially relevant question in the United States where, due to the fact that the last period of glaciation ended just 12,000 years ago, most of the landscapes here—whether forest or prairie or desert or wetland—are very recent developments. Only 22,000 years ago, during the Last Glacial Maximum, the now arid Mojave Desert was filled with lakes and streams; the Great Lake States and New England were buried under ice; Nebraska had a boreal Spruce forest; Alaska, interestingly, was mostly not covered with ice and hosted grassland; Florida was about double its current size due to lower sea levels.
It was a starkly different world and very little that is “native” in a given location now was in the same place then.
As the glaciers retreated and the regional ecologies familiar to us started to form, humans were already living on the continent. How much of a role did they play in the emerging floral and faunal assemblies from the very beginning? I find this to be a highly intriguing question.
For example (and here, I excerpt my book, “Roadtripping at the End of the World”):
“The prairies of the Great Plains formed two to five thousand years after the last glaciers retreated. Retreating ice left behind mixed sediments that were gradually built into topsoil over many centuries with the addition of wind-borne dust and decayed organic matter. The ecosystem co-evolved with various non-human animals including Buffalo, Elk, Deer, Rabbits, and Prairie Dogs, the last of whom played an important role in aerating the soil and creating channels for water penetration with their extensive tunneling…
“Fire played a crucial role in maintaining vegetation on the prairie by suppressing trees, returning nutrients to the soil, and clearing away vegetative detritus. Animals loved the fresh green shoots that popped up afterwards. Herds of Buffalo would travel hundreds of miles to graze such spots.
“Native Americans called prairie fires the “Red Buffalo” and they set them intentionally as part of their gathering and hunting activities. Given that the prairies are only five to eight thousand years old, and that humans have been living in the Americas for much longer, the role that the Native Americans played was possibly foundational.”
In the current day, most of the Tall-Grass prairie is gone, a victim to the settler’s plow. Less than 4% of it now remains, mostly in tiny, isolated patches. As a landscape type in the lower 48, it is even more rare than old growth forest. I have visited one of the surviving patches and it was an amazingly beautiful place. Seeing it return to, say, the entire state of Nebraska would be a wonderful thing.
And, a “natural, functioning” Tall-Grass prairie would arguably have to include humans, given that humans have been living in Nebraska since at least 12,000 years ago, for millennia before the prairies formed. That is to say, the Tall-Grass prairie that the settlers discovered—and that many of us would like to see restored—always had humans.
So I must emphasize: if one is trying to restore a “natural, functioning ecosystem” in a place where humans always played a role, and one purposefully excludes humans, then that would not be “restoration”; that would be an ahistoric attempt to create something new that never previously existed.
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I am well aware that some environmentalists downplay the significance of indigenous ecological influence in the Americas, but the supporting evidence of widespread landscape management and co-evolution continues to mount. Paleoethnobotany (aka archaeobotany) is an active field of research, with fresh findings being released all the time. Newer technologies like genetic analysis shed light on plant origins and can up-end old theories, as when the California Fan Palm of the southern California deserts was shown not to be a prehistoric relic species from millions of years ago, but a very new species that broke out from Baja California just a few thousand years ago; its spread from its originating location seems likely to have been predominantly an indigenous human project. (See: Did Native Americans introduce Fan Palms to California?) The science on these topics is speaking loudly. Conservationists, preservationists and those engaged in restoration work would do well to pay some attention. At some point, continued denial of the facts on the ground (and literally growing out of it) runs the risk of being merely ideological.
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The unspecified “humanity” that Molvar references would more accurately be qualified as “agricultural humanity” or “civilized humanity” or “wetiko humanity.” That last designation is a Native American word popularized by author Jack Forbes in his book, “Columbus & Other Cannibals” and it designates a sick mental state of unrestrained greed and brutality that can express in cannibalism.
Still other words could be applied, but what they have in common is that they characterize not “humanity” as a species but rather the behaviors of certain humans. Yes, societies of these certain humans have come to dominate over the course of the last 10,000 years—and especially the last 500—but they have never encompassed all humans. In the present day, according to the World Bank, indigenous people—though comprising only 5% of the human population—“own, occupy, or use a quarter of the world’s surface area” and “safeguard 80 percent of the world’s remaining biodiversity.”
So first off, not one more acre should be stolen from the world’s indigenous humans, and secondly, quite a lot needs to be given back, like yesterday. Thirdly, we non-indigenous humans should study what the indigenous humans are doing and what they’ve done, and try to learn from it. I’m not peddling a “noble savage” myth here—I’m aware of the atrocities of the Aztecs, for example, or the extinctions of megafauna on certain islands after human arrival—but it’s certainly not controversial to point out that the indigenous track record on balance is a hell of a lot better than ours as civilized humans.
As the descendants of these settler-colonialists—whether literally or culturally—we have trouble comprehending ways of interacting with the environment in which humans are participants or careful molders rather than taskmasters or pillagers. We’ve been stuck on our dominance path for so long that we can assume that everyone else must be too, but that’s not factual.
Now we live in an age where the awareness is growing that we must change our ways, and we are seeking to fix the messes we made—to “restore” what we destroyed. That’s great. But it’s a challenge for us, because we don’t have any practice doing it.
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Concerning the future, Molvar writes:
“The good news is, we have rafts of science that inform not only the problems we’re causing, but also what the natural world requires of us in order to successfully coexist.”
Yes, that’s true, and let’s try to apply that science as sensibly as we can. We also have rafts of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK). What is TEK? In “Ecological Applications,” the journal of the Ecological Society of America, Raymond Pierotti and Daniel Wildcat write:
“TEK is based on close observation of nature and natural phenomena; however, it is combined with a concept of community membership that differs from that of Western political and social thought. TEK is strongly tied to speciﬁc physical localities; therefore, all aspects of the physical space can be considered part of the community, including animals, plants, and landforms… TEK also emphasizes the idea that individual plants and animals exist on their own terms. This sense of place and concern for individuals leads to two basic TEK concepts: (1) all things are connected, which is conceptually related to Western community ecology, and (2) all things are related, which changes the emphasis from the human to the ecological community as the focus of theories concerning nature. Connectedness and relatedness are involved in the clan systems of many indigenous peoples, where nonhuman organisms are recognized as relatives whom the humans are obliged to treat with respect and honor… TEK is inherently multidisciplinary in that it links the human and the nonhuman, and is the basis not only for indigenous concepts of nature, but also for concepts of indigenous politics and ethics. This multidisciplinary aspect suggests that TEK may be useful in resolving conﬂicts involving a variety of stakeholders and interest groups in controversies over natural resource use, animal rights, and conservation. TEK may also have implications for human behavior and obligations toward other forms of life that are often unrecognized, or at least not emphasized, in Western science.”
It’s true that much TEK was lost to genocide and other brutal cultural disruptions. But not all, and I’m reminded of a T.S. Eliot quotation:
“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
Science excels at collecting information (and its subset, data), and has built its own body of knowledge, but as for wisdom? That’s not its area, nor does it claim it to be so. That’s where TEK comes in. Because “science” is not enough.
The road we took to get here—the desertification of the Mideast from our agriculture, the deforestation of the Mediterranean for ships and smelting, the dualism of the Greeks, the war-mongering of the Romans, the atrocities of Christianity, the materialism of Des Cartes, the cruelty of Colonialism, the ruthlessness of Capitalism—these things infected our thinking the whole time, up to the present moment, and our science has not been untouched by them. We cannot pretend it is merely a cooly objective tool; it is not. It carries cultural baggage too, and the sooner we come to terms with that, the better it will function for us, for the things it can do well. We should welcome TEK as part of that process. Not only can it help us see the world in different ways—it can help us to understand our own perception of the world more clearly. We’re in dire need of that.
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These days, it’s not hard to find people who talk about “collapse,” in terms of the current trajectory of the US, capitalism, and even human civilization as a whole. But in an interview on my podcast, fellow student-of-the-plants Zach Elfers described the rise of civilization—which tracks with the Anthropocene—as itself being a long collapse; the collapse of Traditional Ecological Knowledge.
That rings true to me, and so I value all the more what remains. Thus, I have to pipe up when people talk about “restoring wild, self-willed nature,” as does Molvar, but ignore indigenous humanity.
Molvar also says, “We need an intervention, and the only one who’s going to provide it for us is ourselves.” If by “ourselves” we mean all humanity, including indigenous humanity, than I agree. In the meantime, it’s counterproductive to that goal to paint our entire species as villainous, and leave out so much of who we are, what we know, and what we’ve done altogether over our long history. The good news is that non-indigenous civilization and the Anthropocene comprise only a small part of our entire 200,000 year history as a species, and in that way, is the exception, not the rule.