The Anthropocene is Irreversible, but Nah, We’ll Be Fine

Here’s the latest article about the Anthropocene epoch, which many scientists are contending is now (er, since 1950) our current geological age—one in which human activity has become the largest influence on the Earth’s ecosystems. Spoiler alert: it’s an overwhelmingly negative influence:

Human activity has:

  • Pushed extinction rates of animals and plants far above the long-term average. The Earth is on course to see 75% of species become extinct in the next few centuries if current trends continue.
  • Put so much plastic in our waterways and oceans that microplastic particles are now virtually ubiquitous, and plastics will likely leave identifiable fossil records for future generations to discover.
  • Doubled the nitrogen and phosphorous in our soils in the past century with fertiliser use. This is likely to be the largest impact on the nitrogen cycle in 2.5bn years.
  • Left a permanent layer of airborne particulates in sediment and glacial ice such as black carbon from fossil fuel burning.

It’s nice, if that’s the right word, that such a monumental shift is getting some ink. But nobody wants to really talk about what it would mean to address any of these catastrophes. They can’t be solved with recycling, and they might require tradeoffs like coffee and air conditioning and having children. And so if, like me, you still listen to the radio, then you’re likely to hear this “news” story mentioned briefly and then either forgotten or dismissed in favor of the next trick from the election-cycle circus, or how X company is innovating Y product that you don’t really need and that almost assuredly leads to the lengthening of the list above. Article after article, sign after unmistakable sign, and people just don’t care about this most important of problems.

Last week we “celebrated” the birthday of the National Park system, while little was reported about the simultaneous closure of the Yellowstone River due to a massive fish die-off. And even the reporting that is being done about the river cites the impact on industry and tourism (“The indefinite closure of Montana’s Yellowstone River due to a major fish kill is raising worries about lasting impacts to the region’s lucrative outdoors industry.” was said article’s lede), because “the economy” (in quotes because it’s an abstraction of an abstraction) always trumps the living planet. Always. We’re never going to figure out in time that without the living ecosystems, there is no economy. I don’t think we’re capable of figuring it out on a level that would change the Anthropocene’s devastating course. Game theory only partially explains why this failure is so predictable—and inevitable.

Meanwhile on the technotopian front, as the naming of this current age gets further debated look for lots of arguments about how humans will face this challenge with even more ingenuity than can be currently imagined. We’ll develop new inventions that will turn our peril into fortune with a simple app (cue the TED talk). We’ll come together as tribes and nations and ideologically cohesive regions in order to share, help, and collaborate. We’ll be smarter about our interactions with nature than we had been in the past, because we’ve managed to learn the names of some of their interworking inhabitants and mechanisms. …Except that the evidence is becoming continuously clearer that these solutions grow less and less likely to be attempted, let alone to be carried out successfully—and in fact are probably impossible. Sorry.



“By historical standards, liberal democracies have been extraordinarily stable. Poor countries have trouble sustaining democratic rule. Some rich countries, especially those with vast oil wealth, have always been controlled by autocrats. But once a wealthy country has successfully transitioned to democracy, its form of government is locked in. This is about as remarkable a fact as political science has on offer. Never in history has a wealthy, consolidated democracy collapsed. Not once.

That remarkable fact has made it easy to ascribe the stability of the West’s political institutions to its fundamental attributes: universal suffrage, rule of law, checks and balances, individual rights. Each country gives its own spin on the genealogy of its particular political settlement. Americans tend to thank the genius of their founders, the French the principled visionaries on the barricades, Brits the fortuitous rise of pluralistic institutions owed to the blood-soaked compromises struck between lord and liege. But for all of the specificities of national myth and memory, the triumphalist upshot is remarkably similar in every democratic country. The question of the best regime form, which had animated the writings of thinkers from Socrates to Rousseau, has supposedly been solved. The end of history has arrived.

This happy story overlooks a number of facts that have been so formative of our political world that it is easy to forget just how extraordinary they, too, are by historical standards. All through the history of democratic stability, the incomes of ordinary citizens grew rapidly. All through the history of democratic stability, a democracy has been the most powerful country in the world. And all through the history of democratic stability, democracies have been highly homogeneous.

Over the last decades, each of these factors stopped being the case. Living standards stagnated. The rise of China is threatening American hegemony. Democracies in North America and Western Europe are more diverse than they have ever been before.

History cannot tell us how liberal democracies perform under those circumstances, so we are only just starting to gather the first shreds of evidence for what the effects of those transformations might be. What little we know suggests that the answer is not going to be pretty.”

– Yascha Mounk, from “The Week Democracy Died” in Slate

Digital Self-Examination

I came across this essay about narcissism (see how I started the sentence with “I”—woops), and while most of it is strange and love-columny, I love the first paragraph:

THE NARCISSIST IS, according to the internet, empty. Normal, healthy people are full of self, a kind of substance like a soul or personhood that, if you have it, emanates warmly from inside of you toward the outside of you. No one knows what it is, but everyone agrees that narcissists do not have it. Disturbingly, however, they are often better than anyone else at seeming to have it. Because what they have inside is empty space, they have had to make a study of the selves of others in order to invent something that looks and sounds like one. Narcissists are imitators par excellence. And they do not copy the small, boring parts of selves. They take what they think are the biggest, most impressive parts of other selves, and devise a hologram of self that seems superpowered. Let’s call it “selfiness,” this simulacrum of a superpowered self. Sometimes they seem crazy or are really dull, but often, perhaps because they have had to try harder than most to make it, the selfiness they’ve come up with is qualitatively better, when you first encounter it, than the ordinary, naturally occurring selves of normal, healthy people. Narcissists are the most popular kids at school. They are rock stars. They are movie stars. They are not really rock stars or movie stars, but they seem like they are. They may tell you that you are the only one who really sees them for who they really are, which is probably a trick. If one of your parents is a narcissist, he or she will tell you that you are a rock star, too, which is definitely a trick.

Like I said, the rest of the piece veers off into what-it’s-like-to-date-a-narcissist territory, which is almost too personal to be taken seriously. But this quoted section hits on so many points I routinely think/write about: the age of facebook, searches for meaning, education/parenting, and social validation. I think it’s demonstrably true—because I’m guilty of it myself—that people seive the positive bits of their days or weekends or even years to project a “better” (i.e. “fitter, happier, more productive”) version of themselves to the world. And thus it’s almost certainly also true that people internalize their own projections. Who hasn’t scrolled through their own photos on facebook?

The question is why people feel the need to (and then become addicted to) creating meaning in this echo-chamber way. As a frequenter of bars, I am reminded of this description of facebook as a bar that never closes. The difference with a bar, though, is that you also see people at their not-so-best (and they see you). You see boredom. You see conflict. You see terrible first dates. And yes, you see people on their phones. But the point is that you see lives uncurated, and amidst the cacophony you can hear laughter.

A Call to Return to… What, Exactly?

Here’s an essay arguing for the need to return to Dewey’s pedagogy:

For those who think that democracy ought to be a way of life rather than merely a means to select leaders, and that schools serve a vital civic function of teaching children to become autonomous adults, now is the time to recover the vision Dewey outlined in Democracy and Education.

The essay touches on many of my critiques of the American education system, but even I don’t think schools were ever set up to teach people much of anything, let alone how to become autonomous; autonomy is about the last thing a “high-performing” workforce needs. If a school does succeed in teaching someone how to be something other than a good worker—in the narrowist sense—than it has done so despite of, and not according to, its real goal.

Yes, all schools are different, and teachers are doing their best, and there are good examples everywhere. But it’s still true—and can be easily and clearly shown—that schools were never created to be engines of education, and that, indeed, they have more in common with prisons than they do with any idealized, overintellectualized visions of scholasticism dancing in people’s heads.

In Praise of Quiet

Here’s an essay about the benefits of silence: “Freedom from noise and goal-directed tasks, it appears, unites the quiet without and within, allowing our conscious workspace to do its thing, to weave ourselves into the world, to discover where we fit in. That’s the power of silence.”

Finland is apparently marketing silence to boost tourism, and according to the author of said essay, the strategy is working. It’s no wonder; in a world oversaturated with combustion engines, cell phones, and talking heads, silence is an ever more precious commodity. When’s the last time, while awake, that you’ve enjoyed even five minutes of absolute quietness?

And speaking of which, here is an essay on “What five minutes of silence can do for your brain“. According to the author: “We are in an age where there is no solitude at all and if there were any we’d grab for our phones to make sure there wasn’t any. Whether you’re in the camp who believes it our not, the pace at which we live our lives and the amount of things we try to pay attention to at once are major recipes for stress, anxiety, depression, and addictive behaviors.”

While I don’t think meditation is going to save the rainforest, I think some quiet reflection certainly couldn’t hurt, individual-happiness-wise—especially considering that our culture is so disorienting and loud and cluttered with the insignificant. I myself meditate once a week, and mostly it’s a restful hour spent reminding myself that things are okay, relatively speaking.