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Time to take ownership of the Anthropocene

Time to take ownership of the Anthropocene thumbnail

Maybe you, too, know that feeling of despair that comes when learning of some catastrophic impact of climate change — a disappearing coral reef, an extinguished species, a rising coastline’s impact on struggling farmers. A recent headline in the Guardian about the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report makes it hard to feel anything else: “Climate change a threat to security, food and humankind.” When I investigated the threats posed to our global food system by climate change and the environmental damage caused by industrial agriculture — as well what people are doing to fix these problems — for my book Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet, I became familiar with this feeling of doom.

I interviewed many scientists, such as U.S. Department of Agriculture plant physiologist Lewis Ziska, who has studied what higher levels of CO2 and warmer temperatures will mean for plant growth. (Spoiler alert: It’s the weeds, not crops, that will best thrive.)

Some of these scientists spoke only about their sobering findings, but others spoke openly of their feelings about the future. Many said they are pessimistic. One plant biologist even confessed such a fear of the future that she’d told her adult daughters not to have their own kids.

If we embrace the term, rather than let it scare us, and accept that having a geological epoch named after us comes with responsibility, then we can find hope for the future.

We may discuss the impact of climate change on the biosphere, but we don’t speak much about how it affects how we feel. I have cried quietly at my desk more than a few times. That is, until I found an antidote to the despair.

You see, there’s a flip side to the Anthropocene. On the one hand, the term speaks to the irreparable damage we have caused the biosphere. But if we embrace the term, rather than let it scare us, and accept that having a geological epoch named after us comes with responsibility, then we can find hope for the future. Because once we accept that it is our job to steward this Earth that we’ve already shaped so profoundly, we can start taking action toward improving the prognosis.

The ubiquity of this movement — from the highlands of Yunnan to downtown Miami — indicates that there is something big happening.

One example of where this is already happening is with the cultivation of sustainable food systems. Researching this global social movement, I met people in Yunnan, China, who are working with small rice farmers to stop using chemical pesticides and fertilizers and instead nurture the biodiversity of rice paddies. In Lebanon, a man named Kamal Mouzawak has ignited an initiative to preserve the food traditions of his country and promote sustainable agriculture. There are recently opened shepherd schools in Spain where a new generation of people learn how to care for the animals and the landscape, which in turn helps to keep rural regions alive, a vital part of a sustainable food system. In Quebec, a group of farmers are preserving the biodiversity of livestock in the Charlevoix by bringing the Canadienne cattle breed back from the brink of extinction and making delicious new cheeses in the process. In Italy, officials hand over land confiscated from Mafia bosses to the community to grow vegetables. In Nairobi, Kenya, young people are starting urban agriculture businesses and producing food to sell to their neighbors. And all across North America, there are grassroots efforts to create a sustainable alternative to the industrial food system, from rooftop farms to urban gardens to pollinator habitat restoration. Wherever I looked there were people working to make their corner of the world a better place for food. These are the stories that fill me with hope for the future despite that sinking feeling.

The cynic might say that when a journalist goes looking for stories about the rise of sustainable food systems, it’s not a coincidence that she finds people creating alternatives to industrial food. Sure, I found what I was looking for. However, the ubiquity of this movement — from the highlands of Yunnan to downtown Miami — indicates that there is something big happening.

It has led to the opening of farmers’ market after farmers’ market, urban garden after urban garden, community beehive after community beehive — one project inspiring the next and together equaling social change.

If you take a step back and thread these small efforts together, a larger, more robust picture of change emerges. This global movement has successfully lobbied for new food procurement policies at public institutions like universities and hospitals. It has motivated a new generation to take up sustainable agriculture, and new organizations such as FarmStart are educating them. The movement has encouraged politicians to plant vegetables at city hall, such as in Kamloops, British Columbia, and inspired citizens to create food-producing parks such as Seattle’s Beacon Food Forest. Grassroots social action has also helped preserve farmland — witness France’s Terre de Liens, which is raising money from concerned citizens to buy land to be farmed sustainability and kept in trust. It has led to the opening of farmers’ market after farmers’ market, urban garden after urban garden, community beehive after community beehive — one project inspiring the next and together equaling social change.

And this movement has pushed food policy issues into the global zeitgeist. There is a universal desire for good food and a concern for how this food is produced that cuts across culture and nationality. People have stopped waiting for government action on climate change and instead are trying to do something positive for the future.

Another person I met during my travels, a professor in Beijing, had helped a rice-growing village in her country become self-sufficient. After the small farmers, who grew organic rice, were connected with urbanites who wanted to pay for food they knew was safe from pollutants and contamination, villagers no longer needed to go to factories to earn money.

The night I spoke to the professor, she was despondent, feeling like what she had accomplished, in the grand scheme, was “very small. It doesn’t change life fundamentally.”

True, if you see each tiny effort in isolation, it does appear to be small. But taken together, these small efforts equal profound change — a positive response to the Anthropocene.


17 Comments on "Time to take ownership of the Anthropocene"

  1. Makati1 on Wed, 30th Apr 2014 10:01 am 

    The Philippines is on target to reach rice independence by 2020. There is a lot of land unused in the Ps. Thousands of square miles. Our farm is in such an area. We are slowly turning it into a 12+ acre mini farm using non-chemical methods and heirloom seeds. Eventually, it will have to support 20-30+ people with everything. Nice challenge.

  2. Plantagenet on Wed, 30th Apr 2014 10:41 am 

    Good luck Makati1. But even the Phillipines can’t deal with ever increasing population and their energy needs forever.

  3. Kenz300 on Wed, 30th Apr 2014 11:15 am 

    Climate change will impact everyone…….. and every thing……….

    It will be cheaper to deal with the cause of climate change than deal with the cost of the impact of climate change.

    It is time to stop building and more coal fired power plants and begin to shut down the oldest, dirtiest ones.

    The sooner we transition to safer, cleaner and cheaper alternative energy sources the better.

    Years of Living Dangerously Premiere Full Episode – YouTube

  4. J-Gav on Wed, 30th Apr 2014 11:15 am 

    Every little bit helps as they say. Like the Amazon tribal story about the hummingbird: A raging fire broke out in the forest and the animals all panicked and fled – except for one hummingbird, who tirelessly kept dipping his beak in the river and carrying the water to put out the flames. When other animals stopped to point out how futile his efforts were, he answered: “I’m only doing my part. If all of you did the same, it might make a difference.”

    That story provided the name for the ‘Colibri (hummingbird) Association’ in France, founded by smallholder Pierre Rabhi, one of the beacons of the organic/permaculture movement in the country.

    Can such endeavors reach critical mass in time to preserve at least some of the benefits of “advanced civilization” before the climate/environment is shit-canned? Sometimes I have my doubts but who am I to say? In my opinion, those who try are deserving of respect.

  5. yellowcanoe on Wed, 30th Apr 2014 11:25 am 

    The Philippines depend on emigration and sending workers to other countries to help deal with their population problem. Those that leave permanently or temporarily also tend to send a lot of money home to support their relatives. This isn’t sustainable in the long run as economic growth slows down. We’re seeing this in Canada as there is a growing demand to curtail the Temporary Foreign Worker program.

  6. Makati1 on Wed, 30th Apr 2014 1:09 pm 

    yellowcane, true, but they can go home to family and land in the provinces. They are still family oriented and extended family living is still common there, unlike in the West.

    I did not say that they would not be affected, but think about what their leaving the US will mean. For instance, there are about 3.4 million in the US. (Second in number to the Chinese-Americans, who number over four million.) They are employed and pay taxes. Some make six figure incomes and have sent much of that back to the Ps for their retirement. I know several of those high earners.

    Soon more Americans will be heading to better pastures overseas to make a living wage. (6.3 million already live/work overseas) What goes around comes around. It is only a matter of time.

  7. Davy, Hermann, MO on Wed, 30th Apr 2014 1:22 pm 

    Climate change will complicate the Philippines’ efforts to become self-sufficient in rice, the country’s economic planning secretary said Monday.

    Arsenio Balisacan said preliminary data showed that 74% of the estimated damage from natural disasters in the country last year came in the farm sector, primarily affecting rice. The natural disasters include extreme weather caused by global warming, he said.

  8. Northwest Resident on Wed, 30th Apr 2014 1:30 pm 

    J-Gav — I like the hummingbird story. I identify with that hummingbird in significant ways. My “hummingbird approach” to “the raging fire” is to toil daily, converting the lawn in my backyard into a food production center with multiple raised planter beds. Digging up that turf is very physical work, chopping it up and mixing in soil amendments is even harder. But it is a worthwhile effort, even if I eventually end up being consumed by the “raging fire”. To save this planet and to preserve the best in humanity, I truly believe that we must all be prepared to return to local economies and local sustainable organic food production. Live or die, win or lose, I’m putting in a one hundred percent effort to do my part, to join with others who are leading the way. Like the hummingbird, if only all the others would join in to do their part, it might make a (big) difference.

  9. Davy, Hermann, MO on Wed, 30th Apr 2014 2:30 pm 

    Onward doomers soldiers…..Me too NR. I am doing my little part here in the Ozarks of Missouri. Same deal with hard work and lots of enjoyment. I just hope my health holds out and or I don’t injure myself. I am having the time of my life in the race to prepare for the coming decent. Even if nothing comes of a collapse I am still having a great time. My retirement is 19 century living….F**K golf and gambling. I don’t expect a retirement though because I expect a contraction that puts all of us back to work or you will not make it. Anyway, join us folks!

  10. Northwest Resident on Wed, 30th Apr 2014 2:39 pm 

    “Even if nothing comes of a collapse…”

    I don’t think you or I need to have any doubts about that, Davy. The magic show of TPTB pulling rabbits out of the hat to keep BAU going will eventually come to an end, sooner rather than later at this late stage of the game, and the curtain will come down, the lights will go out, and those like you and I hope myself who have put in the hard work of preparation will be in a better position that most others. Maybe (and most likely) not “sitting pretty”, but at least not starving, or at the very worst, going down in a blaze of glory.

  11. MSN fanboy on Wed, 30th Apr 2014 4:40 pm 

    Don’t underestimate BAU, there is a high chance we will innovate ourselves out of this rat pit.

    Renewables and AC 🙂 the keys to the future.

  12. HARM on Wed, 30th Apr 2014 4:57 pm 

    “There is a lot of land unused in the Ps. Thousands of square miles.”

    Not exactly. There may be a lot of land not “being used to feed, house or extract mineral resources for humans”, but that is far from the land being “unused”. Land that is not “developed” for human uses *is* being used –by wildlife as natural habitat. Unfortunately, human beings don’t place any monetary value on that, so to us it’s “wasted” land.

  13. RICHARD RALPH ROEHL on Wed, 30th Apr 2014 5:46 pm 

    The Anarchist Society… recommends building thousands of mega-GMO factory farms powered by Fukushima time-bomb nuke plants to save Amerika from climate change (and commie pinko tree huggers).

    We also recommend… all fat-ass Amerikan consumer-citizens take Gardasil vaccines every week.

    Rome is burning! It is the duty of sane men to pour fuel on the fire.

  14. Musher on Wed, 30th Apr 2014 6:14 pm 

    Based on my readings, global warming includes a “lag” time where the current global temperature is the product of ghg and other causes that occurred approximately 40 years ago. That means that even if all human generated climate impacts ceased today (they won’t) the average global temperature would continue to increase for the coming 40 years. In other words, we are already on a slippery slope to extreme climate change. Virtually nothing can stop us from going off the edge before the change results in major environmental and social impacts. I admire the efforts of the author and others, but I fear that it will have almost no measurable affect before it is literally too late.

  15. Makati1 on Wed, 30th Apr 2014 8:31 pm 

    HARM, yep, the wildlife will go extinct everywhere when the SHTF. There will be a mass slaughter of everything edible even in the developed countries, like the US and Canada. If you doubt that, what do you think the 250 million guns in the US are going to be shooting except deer, bear, elk, rabbits, pheasants, etc.? Even the pigeons will become extinct before the end.

    Climate change is going to ruin some people’s plans who believe they are OK because they can farm now. Doesn’t take a drought to kill a crop, just rain or frost at the wrong times. No-one is safe in the coming decades. No-one.

  16. GregT on Wed, 30th Apr 2014 10:19 pm 


    You took the words right out of my mouth.

    The author spoke about crying quietly at her desk. I suspect that she will be crying much more loudly in the future, without a desk to hide behind.

    God grant me the serenity
    to accept the things I cannot change;
    the courage to change the things I can;
    and the wisdom to know the difference.

    Serenity does not come from denial, it comes from acceptance. Change what you can in your own lives people, do your part, but be wise enough to understand that it isn’t going to change the world. Enjoy the back eddies of life.

    Attempting to swim upstream is a waste of energy.

  17. Makati1 on Thu, 1st May 2014 11:05 am 

    GregT, great words of wisdom. I’m doing what I can to make the transition down as painless as possible but I know it is coming no matter what I do. Will my decisions/preps be the right ones or will they be worthless? Who knows, but in 20-30 years, it will be obvious and one way or another it will be over.

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