The human impact on the environment and its consequences are easily among the best-known challenges humanity has faced. It is extensively covered in both the academic and the popular publications, it has drawn the attention of multiple activist groups, and, most importantly, it has a solid scientific base. In other words, it is as real as it is threatening. However, any given ecosystem on our planet, not to mention the whole picture, is a complex system, and this fact makes the research a tremendously difficult task and finding a definite solution a nigh impossible endeavor.
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The situation is further complicated by the fact that the topic is equally appealing to the general public, which prefers the emotional and sentimental approach over legit scientific data and thus is prone to misinterpretation of important facts. Such a phenomenon is known as “the environmental hysteria” and does not in any way benefit the credibility of actual research. The other factor that introduces a bias in the field is its extensive use by the political actors, who use the environmental topics to pursue their own agenda. Both factors have led to the partial mistrust in ecological issues and, through misuse of skeptical inquiry, to the rejection of the problem.
The best example of this is “the global warming denial”, the phenomenon which suggests that global warming is, in fact, not happening, the claim that has been proven wrong but persists on a small scale till now. While the exaggeration of the issue, as well as misinterpretation of some facts and conclusions, indeed take place, the conclusion drawn by the deniers is wrong and simply aligns the bias in the opposite direction, thus complicating the already complex issue. Several attempts to introduce the ethical and philosophical approach to the question has been made, to a varying degree of success. The recently introduced concept of the Anthropocene may be useful to at least partially untangle the issue and provide a new perspective to the problem.
The Anthropocene is a new concept and lies primarily within the geological domain. It is not yet officially recognized by the scientific community (the nearest hearing regarding the official incorporation is set to the third decade of 2016) but is already extensively used in academic publications and the popular press. The term is proposed to define the current geologic epoch, which, up till now, was recognized as the ongoing Holocene.
According to Paul Krutzen, one of the originators and main proponents of the concept, the humanity has reached the level of interaction with its environment when its actions leave a formidable footprint1. At this point, it is already easy to see the correlation between the concept of Anthropocene and the image dominating the environmental activist scene. Both imply that human activities are sufficient to impact the planet on a major scale. Even despite the fact that Anthropocene is limited primarily to stratigraphy, dealing with fossil records, sediment processes, and trace elements in soil and atmosphere, such fields as climate and biodiversity inevitably get involved. Such a concept suits perfectly to describe humans as a mindless destructive force that irreversibly damages the world they live in.
However, certain specialists suggest other angles introduced by the Anthropocene. For example, viewing the human activity as an environment-shaping force puts it in the same tier as other geologic processes, including the volcanic activity, plate tectonics, and atmospheric disasters. These are usually ignored by the activist groups as “natural,” while the human activity is deemed “artificial.” Meanwhile, the same “artificial” behavior, known as niche construction, is exhibited by a large number of other lifeforms on the planet. Thus, the boundaries between artificial and natural (and by extension, between positive and negative) become arbitrary.
The concept of the Anthropocene can serve as a tool in defining the legitimacy of human activity, the impact on the environment, its consequence, and its significance in the Earth timespan.
According to the proposed concept, human activity is noticeable enough to impact the processes of sediment formation, the composition of trace elements, the fossil record, and the landscape transformation. In other words, the presence of humans can be traced by these signatures. This is often cited as proof of the crime against the environment, as the purported status quo is breached. The ongoing controversy over the Three Gorges Project in China serves a good example of such a footprint.
Built on the Yangtze River, the Three Gorges Dam is the largest power station in the world, with installed capacity exceeding 20,000 MW. Since its launch, the power station of Three Gorges Dam has produced enough power to subside for more than thirty million tons of coal, which sufficiently decreases the greenhouse effect. Besides, the dam is said to positively affect the floods that often happen on the Yangtze River. However, environmental specialists are not so optimistic.
First, the dam has changed the landscape dramatically, altering the flow of the river and raising the level of the water up to 98 meters. This has led to changes in sedimentation, the results of which are already observable. It appears that the change in the speed of the river flow has decreased the amount of sediment carried to the delta, which will ultimately lead to riverbank erosion2. This process is already noticeable, with dozens of landslides occurring on the Yangtze yearly.
The other reason often cited by the geologists is the sedimentary plain that is situated downstream. With the depleted sedimentation, the plain will gradually weaken and will be prone to landslides. The plain houses Shanghai, among other settlements, so the problem here is not limited to the nature preservation. Besides, the dams are known to change the biosphere of the rivers dramatically, and Three Gorges Dam is no exception. Several rare and endangered species of birds, freshwater dolphins, and fish are either extinct or on the verge of extinction, not to mention the inevitable changes of conditions the other species are facing as a result of the construction.
And the adverse effects are not limited to the geological and biological domains. The Chinese population is arguably under the heaviest impact. The building of the dam has led to the flooding of a large area, which was heavily populated, with 13 cities, 140 towns, and more than 1,000 villages being either fully or partially flooded. As a result, more than one million residents were relocated, with a significant portion of them getting either insufficient compensation for the move or no compensation at all. Even the cultural sphere got under the influence, with many historically significant sites, as well as several relics that were impossible to relocate, ending up underwater.
The Three Gorges Dam is a particularly good example primarily due to the fact that its purpose is arguably justifiable. From an environmental standpoint, the construction of the hydroelectric dam is a positive endeavor. The ever-growing demand for energy sources by humanity is currently saturated to a large extent by fossil fuels – coal and oil. These energy sources, in turn, are among the primary actors in the accumulating greenhouse effect.
The dam, in this case, is a move towards cleaner, more environment-friendly sources. However, the consequences of its constructions are horrifying by the standards of the same groups who advocate “green energy.” Considering the impact on the local biotope, the geological transformation, both in its current state and its predicted progression, the building of a dam is an ecological disaster.
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However, at this point, it is important to keep in mind that such processes are not completely unique to human activity. While it is easy to conclude that the phenomenon is negative based on the magnitude of the damage assessed, the natural geologic processes can possibly yield similar, if not greater, results. In fact, the whole process of planet formation consisted of such disasters of varying magnitude, accompanied by the death of multiple species and drastic changes in the landscape and the atmosphere.
There is little doubt that humans at their current level of technology are doing this at speed incomparable to the “natural” course of events, but otherwise, such events are similar. Another notable difference is the fact that humans pursue their own agenda, and, unfortunately, do not often correctly estimate the outcome, especially in the long run. In the case of the Three Gorges Project, the relocation of the population and the loss of the cultural heritage probably was foreseen (in fact, multiple documents show it was, along with other adverse effects, most of which are observable today3), the threat the changes in sedimentation posed to Shanghai was either overlooked or underestimated.
If approached from the Anthropocene perspective, where the human is an actor in the ongoing geologic transformation process (as opposed to unbalancing factor in the static geologic equilibrium, as it is popularly portrayed), humanity has conducted another routine action in a series of similar actions, which has led to changes in the ecosystem. In this case, the environment is changed, not harmed. The conditions of humanity have notably worsened, however. Thus, the Anthropocene concept suggests that human actions should be viewed outside the narrow, egocentric approach characteristic of today’s popular view on the environmental issues. In fact, the building of the dam can be deemed as harmful for human beings on a much larger scale than for environment.
This is not the only example of Chinese authorities engaging in the controversial ecological practices while the majority of the population gets under the impact of its results. In 2010, the exhibition in Songzhuang Art Community named “Beijing Besieged by Garbage” revealed the unsettling photographs of endless piles and mounds of garbage outside China’s capital city. The photographs were taken by Wang Jiuliang during his 11-month investigation of illegal waste dumps on the Beijing’s outskirts.
Besides the miles of barren and trash-filled landscape, the investigation has also revealed the illegal government schemes of garbage disposal4. The waste utilization and disposal is a serious topic, and one demanding the most serious attention. Besides, unlike the Three Gorges Dam, the Seventh Ring (the informal name given to the trash sites circling the city) is not benefiting anybody in any way, so it is hard to justify. Is it a crime against the environment? Absolutely.
The adverse effects of dumping waste uncontrollably are well studied and documented. The land gets absolutely unsuited for life. But who is the main victim of the resulting situation? Beijing residents, mainly. The rest of the ecosystem, despite how arrogant that may sound, will recover sooner or later – not soon enough for anybody responsible for the disaster to witness, but soon enough to survive as a system. In other words, the environment can eventually handle what we are doing to it – it is we who are in trouble.
At the same time, the geologic transformation process can be portrayed as positive: the manifestation of human power, the dominance of the knowledge and comprehension over the chaotic natural forces are often seen as motives in the politically charged media. In the case of China, the film Young People in Our Village (1959) serves a perfect example. In the film, the changing of nature to suit humanity’s needs is depicted as an uneven but glorious struggle, in which the man eventually emerges victorious5.
It is easy to see the parallels between the Chinese policy and that of the Soviet Union, another country notable for its extensive tampering with nature. Meanwhile, the independent filmmakers of the recent decade show radically different view on the same process. West of Tracks (2000) and Blind Shaft (2003) both depict the same simple people living on the transformed land, amidst the ravaged and rusty landscape, gradually deteriorating to animalistic behavior6.
While the main focus of these two films is the inequity created by the unregulated capitalism, they exhibit the same effect as the Young People in Our Village, but from the different points. The former two strip the premise of the political agenda and show the scary after-effects of powerful capabilities applied to the wrong point. Again, the Anthropocene offers the angle to the issue: it is humans who have made the change, it just so happens that the change hurts them instead of benefiting.
The self-destructive nature of actions conducted by human beings, or, rather, the willing of the selected few to sacrifice the many for the financial gain, is exhibited fairly regularly. The dumping of waste and the irresponsible geological transformations promising the quick revenue or the upper hand in the political or ideological struggle often end up being destructive in the long run. Much like Three Gorges Project, the outcome is usually predicted and well supplied with arguments and data, but rarely changes the course of events.
The social and psychological background for such behavior has been studied extensively. According to Rob Nixon, author of Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, such behavior is accepted by the public because of its relatively remote and obscure nature7. Psychologically, we react to immediate violence more readily than to potentially harmful actions. Such phenomenon is grounded in the evolutionary nature of our basic emotions and reactions.
The media recognizes this principle and uses it to create the strong feedback by portraying tragedies as graphically violent and visually dramatic as possible. This serves as training for human perception, as it gets used to this high standard and tends to ignore the negative effects not supported by such evident confirmation. This gives way to the “slow violence” – actions, decisions, and policies, which inevitably result in human losses, but require long terms, usually decades, to take effect. This paradoxically makes them acceptable while other, less violent but more immediate events get extensive media coverage and prompt public protests.
Nixon exemplifies the concept with the waste burial in Africa that goes on for decades, with health issues among natives traceable to chemicals deposited up to fifty years ago. Yet the Three Gorges project and the illegal trash dumping in the Beijing outskirts both fit perfectly into the concept, with both cases having the obvious (as well as predicted) adverse effects, yet, because these effects are distant and impact mostly the poor population, they were ignored throughout the process, and their critique stays mostly within the domain of environmental activism and outside the public view.
At this point and taking into account everything mentioned above, it may seem that the Anthropocene concept is used to downplay the responsibility for the crimes undertaken against humanity. Indeed, the prevailing point in the paper is stripping the human activity of any subjective moral evaluation, making it not positive or negative for the environment, but rather significant and formidable.
As humans have become powerful enough to shape their world, does not it give them the permission to do so? In fact, the results displayed by projects undertaken by humans point to the opposite conclusion – we do not yet fully (or even to sufficient degree) understand our own power and its potential for our environment, but even more importantly – for ourselves. Thus, establishing Anthropocene as the official concept and using it as a starting point in analyzing our actions can enhance the comprehension of humanity becoming a major force in the geologic formation process.
The concept in its current form implies the humanity is an actor in the complex system of events and phenomena that comprise the global ecosystem. This differs from the established simplified version which perceives us as an outbound factor which intrudes the system. Such approach is favored by many environmental groups as it allows for easy and clear distinction and evaluation of human activity, which is intrinsically “bad” as it violates the natural order (“good” by default).
Some concerns have been voiced about the Anthropocene concept thus taking the apologetic approach and justifying the crimes against the environment as assigned to humanity acting as a “natural force.” However, recognizing the magnitude and evaluating actions based on their foreseeable results would be more appropriate. In this regard, Anthropocene as a concept shows us how important it is to consider our own interests of survival as a species rather than a financially viable entity.
The value of such worldview has two positive points. First, it triggers the change in perception from relatively short-sighted, focused view to global concept of peace and well-being. Such shift first occurred after the consequences of global nuclear conflict became widely comprehended and publicized, and has arguably contributed to nuclear disarmament policies. The same effect can eventually reduce the destructive projects that are threatening the humanity.
Second, the powers we currently wield can benefit humanity when applied correctly. We are able to amend the issues already created by our ignorance and address those existing as a result of other major actors. Thus, understanding and applying the Anthropocene concept will prevent the crimes against humanity which result from wrong actions (building the dam that will bring more trouble than benefit) as well as from inaction (failing to address the energy crisis altogether).
Lu, Sheldon and Jiayan Mi. Chinese Ecocinema: In the Age of Environmental Challenge. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009.
Meng, Yue. “The Burial of Waste: Wang Jiuliang’s Land Images.” 2016.
Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011.
Qing, Dai. Yangtze! Yangtze!. Toronto: Earthscan Canada, 1994.
Steffen, Will, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen, and John McNeill. “The Anthropocene: Conceptual And Historical Perspectives.” Philosophical Transactions Of The Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical And Engineering Sciences 369, no. 4 (2011): 842-867.
- Will Steffen, Jacques Grinevald, Paul Crutzen and John McNeill, “The Anthropocene: Conceptual And Historical Perspectives,” Philosophical Transactions Of The Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical And Engineering Sciences 369, no. 4 (2011): 842.
- Dai Qing, Yangtze! The Yangtze! (Toronto: Earthscan Canada, 1994), 84.
- Ibid., 159.
- Yue Meng, “The Burial of Waste: Wang Jiuliang’s Land Images” (2016), 7.
- Sheldon Lu and Jiayan Mi, Chinese Ecocinema: In the Age of Environmental Challenge (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009), 160.
- Ibid., 162.
- Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011), 3.