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.)