The Anthropocene is a proposed label for a new geological epoch whose defining feature is measurable human impacts on global biophysical conditions and effects upon ecological conditions worldwide. Many analysts see its onset and recognition as demonstrating a need for a shift to an ethos of planetary stewardship as the basis of global society. Community-led initiatives whose work recognises and responds to the interdependency of nature and human society are widely viewed, by themselves and others, as examples of Anthropocene consciousness in action.
Anthropocene as Political Geology
An increasing volume of evidence shows that human activity now has observable and functionally significant effects, at global scales, on a wide range of factors, including soil composition, mineral deposition, concentrations of atmospheric gases, species extinction rates, biogeography and structure of ecological communities.. Many analysts consider human impacts now to outweigh natural factors in their influence on the basic conditions for life, a shift sufficiently profound to mark the transition from the Holocene to a new geological era, the Anthropocene.
Both the validity of the Anthropocene concept and the timing of its onset are highly controversial topics among geologists. Proposed dates range from (possibly human-induced) changes in vegetation cover and disappearance of megafauna at the end of the Pleistocene, the Neolithic Revolution in around 10,000BC, through the onset of the industrial age and widespread use of fossil fuels since the late 18th Century through to the first tests of nuclear weapons in 1945. The choice is not one of mere scientific interpretation of the relative geological significance of various changes, but a deeply political one reflecting different understandings as to the nature and significance of relationships between human populations and their environments under different socio-technological conditions.
These debates also affect proposals as to appropriate responses to new, complex and often unprecedented challenges characteristic of the Anthropocene, socio-political, economic, cultural, ecological and socio-technological. Scientists from many different disciplines are now calling for a shift in the premise of global governance to one of planetary stewardship. However, social scientists have cautioned against the introduction of generalising narratives, and the need to allow space for multiple interpretations of the Anthropocene.
Political Economy of the Anthropocene
Some writers have criticised standard narratives on the social implications of the Anthropocene as overgeneralised and historically naive: in particular in giving insufficient attention to the specific historical role of capitalism in bringing about the present condition of planetary crisis. Jason Moore sees the Anthropocene as the product of processes that accelerated sharply after the Industrial Revolution, but had their roots in the earlier history of capitalism's global expansion since the age of Colombus. He considers this period to be conceptually marked by self-differentiation from nature, which for the first time made nature available as a resource for exploitation and commodification, and suggests the 500-year period culminating in the recognition of the Anthropocene be labelled the 'Capitalocene'.
Building on this, Armerio and De Angelis points out that the Anthropocene's physical effects are not confined to geology, but are also evident in the very bodies of its human victims, particularly those exposed to the effects of its toxic wastes. They consider various grassroots mobilisations for environmental justice on the part of such victims as exemplary of a new revolutionary movement characteristic of the Anthropocene. For example, protests by people affected by toxic waste dumping in Campania, Italy culminated in the constitution and mobilisation of communities actively engaged not only in dissent, but in creation and enactment of new forms of civic engagement via public assemblies, ultimately leading to the election to the municipal authority of a radical leftist coalition committed to grassroots democracy.
Delanty and Mota also stress that the Anthropocene is far more than a geological phenomenon, but a fundamental reconfiguration in understanding of the relationship between the human and natural worlds, requiring new concepts of history, agency, knowledge and governance, including opening the political space for implementation of various post-carbon technologies. Community-led initiatives, in our view, can be seen as enacting these insights, by drawing attention to status of the era of widespread use of fossil fuel energy, and the worldviews, forms of knowledge and approaches to governance that characterise it, as historical and cultural anomalies, overcoming which requires proactive efforts beyond or at the fringes of contemporary society.
Community-Led Initiatives and the Anthropocene
Various studies and analyses stress the role of bottom-up action at community scale in understanding and responding to the unique challenges represented by the onset of the Anthropocene. According to one analysis, numerous existing "community economies" can collectively be viewed as constituting an emerging grassroots Anthropocene economics taking account of non-human as well as human needs. Their own forms of innovation and experimentation and contributions to these of academic researchers combine to create 'hybrid reseearch collectives' dedicated to eco-social regeneration through action learning and action research.
A study conducted within the Future Earth programme identified over one hundred "Seeds of a Good Anthropocene" in the form of transformative community-scale projects worldwide. Located on all continents, and covering a range of different areas of activity, they have in common that they seek to reconfigure relationships between humans and nature in order to express and enact participants desired visions of the future. Recognising that many such visions and associated actions will come into play during the transition to an ecologically viable and socially desirable Anthropocene society, the project seeks to understand the diversity of such responses and how they might interact synergistically to generate positive change at larger scales.
Recognising that the aims of the Transition movement, particularly as grounded in the philosophy and practice of permaculture, amount to a material reconfiguration of local settings in order to take adequate account of human embeddedness within wider ecological processes and hence interdependence with nature, Martindale has suggested Transition initiatives could adopt local-scale geo-engineering as a component of practical action towards an Anthropocene society. Unlike proposed processes for planetary-scale geo-engineering, these can ensure local retention and visibility of benefits and feedbacks and allow full and democratic involvement of affected local people in their design, implementation, monitoring and ongoing regulation.
Pointing out the historical associations between major shifts in broad social-ecological and socio-technical configurations and predominant cultural ontologies of health and healthcare regimes, Zywert has suggested that currently dominant hi-tech and resource intensive approaches to healthcare are likely to prove incompatible with the circumstances and demands of the Anthropocene. Following the panarchy model of interactions among nested adaptive cycles at different scale, stresses the social-ecological system resulting from ecological degradation, resource depletion and declining net returns on exploitation of energy are translating into vulnerabilities at the scale of health system and individual and collective health outcomes whose resolution can not be achieved within current healthcare regimes. Potential alternatives that could prefigure new approaches to health consistent with Anthropocene reality can be found outside the formal healthcare system, in social movements (including Transition, ecovillages and Degrowth) and surviving traditional approaches that take holistic views of health and provide integrated, community-centred forms of understanding and action, embedded in understandings of local and global social-ecological interdependencies. Nurturing such alternatives in order to prepare them to replace existing regime once the latter become inviable appears, in the light of an understanding of social-ecological resilience and its implications for societal change, a more viable long-term strategy that attempting to perpetuate the status quo.
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