How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Scientists have declared a new era on Earth - the Anthropocene - so called because Man has become the biggest influence on the biosphere. We must rise to the challenge, says expert Christian Schwagerl, and redefine Nature itself

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The Independent Online

We walked past a small shrine. Gnarled oaks formed something like an entrance gate. Behind, there was a green space, a mix of woodland, rice paddies and open meadows.Kaki fruits, guavas and quinces hung from trees. A silver dragon plant peeked out from underneath a bamboo. The scenery felt enchanted. In this small patch of land called the "Hirabari grove", local people grew food, many species of birds swirled around, and old trees made visitors forget the surrounding city of Nagoya with its 2.3 million people. I had travelled to this industrial city in Japan to participate in an important moment in global nature conservation.

At the United Nations Conference on Biological Diversity, representatives from almost all governments worldwide held tough negotiations on how much of the Earth’s nature should be protected in reserves. By the end, conservationists were hailing an ambitious agreement by ministers to protect 17 per cent of the Earth’s landmass and 10 per cent of its coastal and ocean regions by 2020.

But during the conference, activists had persuaded me to come and see a hotspot of conservation not in the league of rainforests, coral reefs and other large, pristine wilderness areas: a small green space, very close to the conference centre, that was about to vanish.

Standing in the Hirabari grove, I wondered: was this other type of nature – urban, man-made and the total opposite of "pristine" and "untouched" – also "real" nature and worth protecting? I didn’t have much time to ponder this question. Construction workers arrived. The sound of chainsaws filled the air. The real-estate developers had won.

Protecting so-called "untouched nature" that is still not greatly damaged by human actions is of utmost importance. But the hour or so I spent in the Hirabari grove made me wonder what will happen even if the ambitious targets of the UN conference are reached by 2020. What will be the fate of 83 per cent of the land and 90 per cent of the oceans that are outside protected areas? Will there be "nature" there, too?

These are key questions for the nearly eight billion humans and the trillions of other living creatures with whom we share this planet. Could we survive in a world where "nature" is restricted to a small part of the globe, while the rest is subject to a business-as-usual transformation into land that only serves the needs of our industrial and capitalistic way of life?

Increasingly we are turning to a scientific word for the fast, deep and long-lasting effects humans have on the planet: the "Anthropocene", the human epoch.

When, exactly, the Anthropocene era began is a matter of debate. Some would say 10,000 years ago, with the invention of agriculture. Others cite the Industrial Revolution. Last month, as The Independent  reported, a study from a working party instituted by the International Commission on Stratigraphy (which rules on periods of geological time) chose the explosion of the first atomic bomb, which was a global rather than local event.

Whichever we choose, one fact is inescapable: we humans have turned so much planetary terrain into cities, fields, mines and industrial areas, we’ve pumped so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and so much nitrogen into the water, we have created so many synthetic chemicals and bred so many life forms according to our needs that we have become the dominant force of change on Earth. Two thirds of the planet’s ice-free land has already been altered by humans. Large swathes of the ocean floors have been ploughed over by "bottom trawling". Humans and their domesticated animals represent 97 per cent of the biomass of all larger animals combined, while wild animals are at a mere three per cent.

These changes are so fundamental that we are about to open a new chapter in Earth’s geological and biological history. Even if we collectively vanished from the planet tomorrow, our traces – from radioactive nuclear fallout to new kinds of rocks made out of decomposing plastic – would last for tens of thousands, if not millions, of years.

So what is "nature" in the Anthropocene era? First published in 2000, the term has already been misinterpreted, often as our right to rule the natural world for narrow human interests. Seen from this angle, the concept is the ultimate expression of our Western economic system, resting on the assumption that nature is something to exploit, whether as a material resource or as a backdrop for the tourism industry. Mainstream economic theory assumes nature to be an "externality" without intrinsic value, to offer boundless and inexhaustible resources and a useful sump in which to dilute our waste.

What if, however, we ascribe to the Anthropocene the opposite meaning? Paul Crutzen, the Nobel laureate in chemistry who coined the phrase, together with colleagues Will Steffen and John McNeill, posited that in this new geological era "humans are not an outside force perturbing an otherwise natural system but rather an integral and interacting part of the Earth system itself". By rooting humans within Earth history, the Anthropocene idea expresses the task that our civilisation needs to function as an integral part of the biosphere. It’s about humility towards all life, not hubris.

In the Anthropocene, there is no longer an "inside" and an "outside", no alien, antagonistic nature with which humans are faced. The environment becomes the "invironment", something with which humans are existentially interwoven. This is why it is far from sufficient to create "nature reserves" on a small percentage of the Earth’s land surface. Instead, we have to consider whether civilisation itself can act and perform within nature, with technologies that don’t act as parasites and destroy, but enrich the living world.

In such a world we can no longer speak of "nature" and "culture" as two separate spheres. Rainforests will no longer exist just because they have always existed, but because people want them to exist.

Coral reefs will only survive if humans decide to stop emitting so much corrosive carbon dioxide that makes the oceans more acidic. But we are still far from a civilisation that creates a rich "new nature". We live off a heritage like the Hirabari grove but rarely produce new ecological capital of this sort.

Rather, we create strange amalgams of nature with culture such as the shiny rock Erle Ellis that a geographer from the University of Maryland  found on a beach while hiking on an island off Maine. He thought it was washed up from deep in the sea, a gem from the distant past. Instead, as he found out a bit further down the beach, it was a piece of molten garbage rounded by the waves. Another strange example is the Australian Lyre bird. Since sharing its habitat with humans it has added the sounds of cell phones, camera shutters and chainsaws to its courtship repertoire. Or take rare orchids in the most remote rainforests which already partly consist of carbon atoms that have made their trip through an exhaust pipe or chimney.

In the Anthropocene world, protecting areas that hitherto have often been stewarded by indigenous peoples is critical – these reserves will be our ecological central banks of the future. The importance of whatever is left of the savannahs, coral reefs, rainforests, deep-sea zones, mangroves, high plateaus and sea grass landscapes will increase in their economic, ecological and spiritual value in proportion to their scarceness. When climate change really hits, our very survival might depend on the robustness of these ecosystems.

But equally important as preserving what’s left is the task to develop and shape new types of "touched" rather than "untouched nature". Like it or not, the dominant feature of an Earth inhabited by up to 11 billion humans by the end of this century will be a massive increase in cities, farms, production areas and other man-made landscapes. So far, few of these landscapes work in a symbiotic relationship with nature. In many cases, they are monocultures, devoid of diversity, often at the brink of ecological collapse; "sacrifice zones" of modern capitalism. The task for the 21st century and beyond is to reclaim, regenerate and transform these landscapes.

To adapt our economy to the Anthropocene, the very definition of nature needs to change. We need to recognise what nature does for us, that it is not an "externality", as old-school economists call it, but the very basis of life, the prime economy of the planet, with a second, human-made economy attached to it. The financial centres of the City of London and Wall Street and the "fossil-industrial" complex linked with it are mere derivatives of the planet’s ecological economy, a kind of mighty parasite that is endangering its host. Even in a utilitarian logic, we need to start thinking about polar regions as our global air conditioners, glaciers as freshwater tanks, mangroves and coral reefs as infrastructure, biodiversity as the most fundamental "shareholder value" for those sharing the planet.

But human-centred utilitarian thinking won’t take us far in the Anthropocene. Nor will it help to adjust nature to us and to engineer our way out of the problems. We need to start adjusting our lifestyles to nature – and then turn our human systems into nature. This means that, for example, cities will have to function biologically, similar to rainforests or bogs. Our machines need to become part of the natural metabolism, which means fully recyclable. Economic success should be measured not only by increases in wealth, but by the growth of animal and plant populations. The scrolling text on TV news should show us not only share prices, but data about the size of forests and bogs, about air quality, energy use and bird populations.

Cities, where most of humanity will live in coming decades, will have to "think like planets", says Marina Alberti, Professor of Urban Design and Planning at the University of Washington. Such Anthropocene cities will draw energy and materials from local and renewable sources. Fossil-fuel driven cars are replaced by public transport, bicycle highways and rental systems for electric cars. Architects design high-rise buildings where facades, balconies and roofs double up as farms, air conditioners and habitats. Green bridges can link city quarters, helping to create a living roof-landscape. Biological life-support systems such as bogs, mangroves and riparian forests become integral to cities in order to hold back floods, absorb carbon dioxide and store water. Cities that adopt these kinds of strategies will experience positive social changes. The more organically they function, the sooner problems caused by financial inequality, nature deficit disorder and depression will disappear.

I already observe the first signs of this ecological potential in my hometown of Berlin. It is common here to see swifts swoop through the streets – the high buildings are like the cliffs and crags where they bred and hatched their eggs before the arrival of humans. The rare eagle owl has found a habitat in a shopping district; the once endangered peregrine falcon hatches its eggs in the tower of the city hall, using the light beam from the television tower to hunt prey at night.

For many of these bird species, the city offers a better biotope than the intensively farmed arable and industrial land in the surrounding countryside. In Berlin, there are nature reserves on former railway grounds, urban fallow land containing rare plant species and man-made hills composed of war rubble rich in species. These vital areas are popular with Berlin’s residents. They offer spaces for recreation to social and ethnic groups, cool the city in the summer and provide wonderful adventure playgrounds for children.

These neo-natural spaces still only hint at the true potential of more advanced urban ecosystems. What one can see today is not a result of design but rather of neglect and abandonment. Even the military can create new types of nature, as can be witnessed in former military training areas near Berlin.

Over the past two centuries, Jüterborg-West and Döberitzer Heide have been used in turn by the Prussian army, the Kaiser’s empire, the Nazi regime and Soviet troops. It seems bizarre, but the full force unleashed by tanks, troops and gunfire achieved an astonishing biological feat, for beneath the modern-day Brandenburg landscape, an older landscape has been revealed, an open sandy vista more typical of the last Ice Age. In these areas, soldiers, bombs and tanks have unearthed a landscape that is both primeval and futuristic, a mixture of desert, heath, grassland and wooded areas.

This habitat attracts many animal and plant species that have become rare in other areas, from the dune-jumping spider to nightjars. Animal species that have become rare in farmed landscapes take advantage of man-made structures: the hoopoe bird, with its distinctive orange, white and black head, has been provided with artificial pipes as breeding grounds. Conservationists have adjusted many of the old bunkers to accommodate bats. Scattered metal plates provide hot, sunny spots for smooth snakes, which are otherwise rare in Germany. It feels rather strange that conservationists try to continue what the tanks and bombs have done here. To prevent the open areas from becoming overgrown, the Sielmann foundation has introduced Mongolian Przewalski horses and European bison to graze the area.

In the Anthropocene, we can’t rely on this sort of touched nature arising from mere neglect or even military activity. The task is to adapt our economic rules and our day-to-day lives in such a way that they result in richer, not poorer landscapes. Agricultural practices are needed that enrich the soil and work with, not against the diversity of life. Technology must become fully recyclable. Our economy has to incorporate (instead of monetise) the intrinsic values of nature. And our cities need millions of new Hirabari groves, between, on top of and inside our postmodern caves.

Adapted from ‘The Anthropocene – The Human Era and How it Shapes our Planet' (Synergetic Press), out on Thursday