J. Baird Callicot: Environmental Ethics in the Anthropocene


Ethics in the Anthropocene: in conversation with Dale Jamieson, Emma Marris, and Jedediah Purdy

New book from Christopher Preston: The Synthetic Age: Outdesigning Evolution, Resurrecting Species, and Reengineering Our World

9780262037617I’ve long enjoyed reading Christopher Preston’s work on environmental ethics and look forward to this new book with MIT Press out later this spring.

The Synthetic Age: Outdesigning Evolution, Resurrecting Species, and Reengineering Our World

Outdesigning Evolution, Resurrecting Species, and Reengineering Our World

We have all heard that there are no longer any places left on Earth untouched by humans. The significance of this goes beyond statistics documenting melting glaciers and shrinking species counts. It signals a new geological epoch. In The Synthetic Age, Christopher Preston argues that what is most startling about this coming epoch is not only how much impact humans have had but, more important, how much deliberate shaping they will start to do. Emerging technologies promise to give us the power to take over some of Nature’s most basic operations. It is not just that we are exiting the Holocene and entering the Anthropocene; it is that we are leaving behind the time in which planetary change is just the unintended consequence of unbridled industrialism. A world designed by engineers and technicians means the birth of the planet’s first Synthetic Age.

Preston describes a range of technologies that will reconfigure Earth’s very metabolism: nanotechnologies that can restructure natural forms of matter; “molecular manufacturing” that offers unlimited repurposing; synthetic biology’s potential to build, not just read, a genome; “biological mini-machines” that can outdesign evolution; the relocation and resurrection of species; and climate engineering attempts to manage solar radiation by synthesizing a volcanic haze, cool surface temperatures by increasing the brightness of clouds, and remove carbon from the atmosphere with artificial trees that capture carbon from the breeze.

What does it mean when humans shift from being caretakers of the Earth to being shapers of it? And in whom should we trust to decide the contours of our synthetic future? These questions are too important to be left to the engineers.

Eduardo Kohn–Anthropology as cosmic diplomacy: Toward an ecological ethics for the Anthropocene

Dale Jamieson: Climate change at the frontiers of ethics

Social learning in the Anthropocene: novel challenges, shadow networks, and ethical practices

My most recent article is now out at the Journal of Environmental Management. At least for a time, it is free to download by clicking here. (UPDATE: Free download period has now expired but you can email me for a free copy or go to the journal if your institution has a subscription). The ideas for the paper took shape well before I’d heard of the Anthropocene at a time when I was working through the kinds of challenges that social learning in adaptive management faces. Last summer I decided to return to those old ideas and to see what might come of them. It is something of a framing piece for a broader bit I am not working on regarding sustainability in the Anthropocene inasmuch as the central argument is that geology is often wielded as a kind of empirical hammer in Anthropocene debates that require more nuance; more like needle-and-thread work than demolition and reconstruction. Here is the abstract:

“The Anthropocene presents novel challenges for environmental management. This paper considers the challenges that the Anthropocene poses for social learning techniques in adaptive management. It situates these challenges with respect to how anthropogenic forcing on the Earth system affects the conditions required for: (1) The cooperative exercises of social learning; (2) The techniques used for assessing the fit of institutions to social-ecological systems; and, (3) The strategies employed for identifying management targets that are transformed by human action. In view of these challenges, the paper then examines how the practices of shadow networks may provide paths for incorporating a broader, more robust suite of social learning practices in the Anthropocene. The paper emphasizes how novel challenges in the Anthropocene demand increased attention to ethical practices, particularly those that establish center-periphery relationships between social learning communities and shadow networks.”

Ethics in the Anthropocene: new paper in The Anthropocene Review

Together with Peter Brown and Chris Orr (both at McGill), I’ve co-authored a new article now available at The Anthropocene Review in advance of print. If you’d like a copy and don’t have institutional access I’m happy to email a .pdf, the abstract is below:

Ethics in the Anthropocene: a research agenda

The quantitative evidence of human impacts on the Earth System has produced new calls for planetary stewardship. At the same time, numerous scholars reject modern social sciences by claiming that the Anthropocene fundamentally changes the human condition. However, we cannot simply dismiss all previous forms of cultural learning or transmission. Instead, this paper examines ethics in the Anthropocene, and specifically what it implies for: (1) reassessing our normative systems in view of human impacts on the Earth System; (2) identifying novel ethical problems in the Anthropocene; and (3) repositioning traditional issues concerning fairness and environmental ethics. It concludes by situating ethics within the challenge of connecting multiple social worlds to a shared view of human and Earth histories and calls for renewed engagement with ethics.

Clive Hamilton on “The Banality of Ethics in the Anthropocene”

Over the last two days, Clive Hamilton published a pair of essays that argue ethics in the Anthropocene are moot. The first essay largely lays out the problems of the continuing rampage besieging Earth systems. The second essay argues that neither consequentialism, deontology, or virtue ethics get any real purchase on the kinds of problems the Anthropocene poses. The argument is that describing the current milieu as unethical (or as unlawful if we see things as environmental crimes) is to commit a category mistake. The implication here is that ethics and law are not capacious enough to withstand the implications that the Anthropocene has on the categories of action and choice that exist when humans are major drivers of Earth systems.

It is an interesting argument, but nowhere does Hamilton consider either of two alternatives: (1) that ethics could be recuperated if some of its more cherished devices are reformulated (I have been working on a paper on this topic for some time now…slow going!); or, (2) that any case for action is going to be motivated out of existing norms because those are what make concrete options serious candidates for consideration (this is the old ‘ought implies can’ principle).

I don’t know if there is a third essay coming up, but I will keep an eye out for it.

James Wescoat: the ethics of evapotranspiration

This video can’t be embedded here, but the link to watch this interesting talk from James Wescoat (MIT) is here.

Katherine Gibson: Take Back the Economy