The Delusion of the “Good Anthropocene”: Reply to Andrew Revkin

Andrew Revkin
Dot Earth blog
New York Times

Dear Andy

Thanks for sending the link to your talk on “Charting Paths to a ‘Good’ Anthropocene”. Since you ask for responses let me express my view bluntly. In short, I think those who argue for the “good Anthropocene” are unscientific and live in a fantasy world of their own construction.

If we listen to what Earth system scientists, including climate scientists, are telling us, the warming of the Earth due to human causes is a slowly unfolding catastrophe. We already have 2.4°C of warming locked in and, even under the most optimistic mitigation scenarios, it will be very hard to avoid 4°C by the end of this century. According to those best placed to make projections, a world 4°C warmer would be a very different kind of planet, one unsympathetic to most forms of life, including human life. Apart from climatic change, other manifestations of human impact in the Anthropocene, from interference in the nitrogen cycle to plastics in the oceans, only add to the grim outlook.

The advocates of the “good Anthropocene” do not attempt to repudiate the mass of scientific evidence; instead they choose to reframe it. As you declare so disarmingly in your talk: “You can look at it and go ‘Oh my God’, or you can look at it and go ‘Wow, what an amazing time to be alive!’ I kind of choose the latter overall.” You are, of course, entitled to put on any kind of glasses you choose, including rose-coloured ones; but that does not change what you are looking at.

So it would make no difference if I took the time to document again what you and your fellow “eco-pragmatists” are looking at (the World Bank report is a pretty good overview). Unlike deniers who feel compelled to attack the science, advocates of the good Anthropocene just seem to glide over it.

You believe that “with work … we can have a successful journey this century. … We are going to do OK.” Personally, when I think about those toiling, vulnerable masses who are going to suffer the worst consequences of a warming world, I find it offensive to hear a comfortable, white American say “We are going to do OK”. I’m sorry if this seems harsh, but unless the IPCC has it completely wrong, much of the world’s population is not included in your “we”.

The eco-pragmatists who embrace the new geological epoch – Michael Schellenberger, Ted Nordhaus, Peter Kareiva, Erle Ellis, Emma Marris, Stewart Brand, Mark Lynas – express an unbounded faith in technology and human ingenuity, and view the natural world as ultimately conformable to human manipulation and resilient enough to bounce back from whatever humans throw at it.

For them the Anthropocene is not proof of humankind’s short-sightedness or rapacity, let alone the product of a power structure defended vigorously by fossil energy interests. There are no planetary boundaries that limit continued growth in human population and economic advance. Humans can adapt and prosper in a hotter world because history proves our flexibility. In this view, as we enter the Anthropocene the only barrier to a grand new era for humanity is self-doubt and the “pessimism” of gloomy scientists. Like you, Ellis, Kareiva and the Breakthrough crowd see the new epoch as “an amazing opportunity”, humanity’s transition to a higher level of planetary significance.

It is not surprising that the eco-pragmatists attract support from conservatives who have doggedly resisted all measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions, defended the interests of fossil fuel corporations, and in some cases worked hard to trash climate science. These are the same people now drawn to geoengineering, especially solar radiation management, as a substitute for reducing emissions. For them, resorting to geoengineering justifies and entrenches the prevailing system, which is their over-riding goal.

So the “good Anthropocene” is a story about the world that could have been written by the powerful interests that have got us into this mess and who are fighting so effectively to prevent us from getting out of it. In the long term this kind of thinking will prove more insidious than climate science denial.

If, against all the evidence, the eco-pragmatists choose to say “What an amazing time to be alive” we can understand the choice as a kind of coping strategy. Those who cope this way acknowledge and accept the facts about global warming up to a point, but they blunt the emotional meaning of the facts. But it is a maladaptive coping strategy, one that provides a balm for feelings of anxiety, fear and helplessness, yet impedes the appropriate action.

Many among the general public cope with global warming by “de-problematising” the threat using inner narratives such as “Humans have solved these sorts of problems before” and “Technology will always provide a solution”. The eco-pragmatists provide an intellectual justification for this kind of wishful thinking. Tacking “good” onto “Anthropocene” may be an effective emotional reframing, but it is without scientific foundation.

It has been shown that humans can benefit from what psychologist Shelley Taylor calls “benign fictions”, unrealistic stories about ourselves and the world that lead us to predict what we would prefer to see, rather than what is objectively most likely to happen. Yet these healthy illusions that can spur us on against the odds can become dangerous delusions when they continue to be held despite evidence from the outside world telling us we must change course.

In the end, grasping at delusions like “the good Anthropocene” is a failure of courage, courage to face the facts. The power of positive thinking can’t turn malignant tumours into benign growths, and it can’t turn planetary overreach into endless lifestyle improvements. Declaring oneself to be an optimist is often used as a means of gaining the moral upper hand: “Things may look bad but, O ye of little faith, be bold and cheerful like me.”

Things are bad, and if we carry on as we are things will be very bad. It is the possibility of preventing bad turning into very bad that motivates many of us to work harder than ever. But pretending that bad can be turned into good with a large dose of positive thinking is, even more so than denying things are bad, a sure-fire way of ending up in a situation that is very bad indeed.


17 June 2014



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