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Living in the Anthropocene: Business as Usual, or Compassionate Retreat?

Peter G. Brown and Jeremy J. Schmidt

Human activity is changing the earth at a global scale. Atmospheric carbon dioxide reached 400 parts per million (ppm) in 2013, and there are no policies in place to prevent it from passing 450 ppm. This makes it highly unlikely that the 2009 Copenhagen agreement to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius will be achieved, and there are many reasons to believe that this goal itself is too high to be safe. Projected sea-level rise will encroach on many of the world's urban centers and agricultural lands, while shifts in regional weather patterns are leading to additional concerns about food, water, political insecurity, and massive migrations of climate refugees. All of this occurs in a world where already-high rates of species extinctions are set to rise dramatically due to climate change.

We have entered the Anthropocene, the geologic era in which humans are a primary driver of the evolution of planetary systems. In this context, geoengineering is seen as an increasingly credible option for climate mitigation and as a way to buy the time needed to pursue more permanent solutions. But geoengineering is controversial because it brings serious risks. Moreover, it sets in contrast two governance philosophies that differ profoundly in how we conceive of the human-Earth relationship.

Geoengineering

Geoengineering is the “intentional large-scale manipulation of the environment, particularly manipulation that is intended to reduce undesired anthropogenic climate change.” This manipulation can take several forms, such as removing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere and pumping it deep underground, or genetically altering plant leaves to increase the amount of sunlight reflected back into space. Each technique comes with its own costs, benefits, and risks.

For instance, dispersing sulfates high into Earth's atmosphere would be relatively inexpensive and would mimic the cooling effect produced when volcanoes release similar particulates that reflect solar radiation back into space. But it comes with potential costs, starting with hazier skies. More serious is the chance that other events, such as natural volcanic eruptions, could compound cooling effects in undesirable ways. Perhaps topping the list is the possibility that adding sulfates en masse to the atmosphere will directly affect other biogeochemical systems, such as the oceans and soils that are intricately and intractably linked with the climate system. And even if atmospheric temperatures were stabilized using this method, it would do nothing to stabilize CO2 concentrations, which already are making the oceans increasingly acidic and hostile to life.

Of course, humans have been altering the earth to our advantage for thousands of years, but the planetary scale and influence of our impact is unprecedented. From this vantage point, we have a choice between two paths. As theologian Thomas Berry describes them, we may proceed from a technozoic mindset and continue to digest the biosphere, excavate the lithosphere, and dispose of our waste in the land, sea, and air, not to mention our own bodies. Or we can take the ecozoic path and seek a mutually enhancing human-Earth relationship. In this kind of relationship we would seek to restore and repair the earth's life-support systems, and to emulate, respect, and enable those societies characterized by respectful reciprocity with the sources of their being. The question before us would no longer be understood as one of weighing marginal costs, benefits, and risks. On the contrary, it is a profound moral and political question about the humanEarth relationship itself.

 
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