The irony of the Anthropocene: People dominate a planet beyond our control

We’ve left our mark on the planet in many ways. NASA, CC BY

It’s becoming increasingly commonplace to suggest that humans now dominate the planet. Earlier this year the Anthropocene Working Group officially proposed that we live in a new geological epoch, one characterized by humanity’s far-reaching impacts on Earth.

Many researchers see this as a wake-up call or a rallying cry – an attempt to jolt humanity into deeper consideration of its actions. Some are concerned that this marks the end of nature as we know it.

But it appears that nature – if we still want to use that term – may have some tricks up its sleeve. Despite humans’ pervasive influence on the planet, our actual control over natural systems remains limited, even in the Anthropocene, the “Age of Humanity.”

Local versus global perspective

In the Brazilian Amazon, where I conduct most of my research as an environmental anthropologist, people have been shaping their environment in subtle yet persistent ways for millennia. One prime example is terra preta do índio, a rich soil that is the product of long-term human settlement.

Prior to European contact, the organic refuse of indigenous populations was mixed with charcoal (or “biochar”) from village fires and in-field burning, which led to persistent environments of sustained fertility. Whether it was intentional or not, Amazonian indigenous societies altered the landscape in ways that made it more congenial to human habitation and agricultural production.

People around the world, including in the Amazon, have been changing their landscapes for millennia by, for example, enriching soil with organic wastes and charcoal. soilscience/flickr, CC BY

However, when I began studying management of such soils by contemporary farmers in the Amazonian town of Borba, a different picture emerged. In many of our conversations, the discussion turned toward the actions of the environment and the demands it placed upon them. Farmers cultivating pineapple were frustrated by the attack of the pineapple mealy bug, which spread a wilt virus that curled healthy pineapple leaves and turned them bright red.

Communities located in the floodplains told me of how they had lost entire orchards of cacao and açaí due to the intense flooding that hit in 2009, forcing them to rely on governmental emergency loans and family support to survive during the months that followed. Even farmers who were fortunate enough to have access to fertile terra preta soils in the stable uplands described to me the problems they had contending with the onslaught of weeds that colonized their fields. One farmer asked if I could use my contacts with the local agricultural extension agents to procure a weed whacker for him to help fight off the unruly invasives.

Many outsiders far removed from the everyday realities of Amazonia are concerned about the destructive force that agriculture represents to the Amazonian environment. But often rural smallholder farmers in the region see themselves as fighting a relentless battle against the attack of pests, fungi, weeds, and disease that threaten their crops, and subsequently their livelihoods.

Even as extension agents and farmers gain access to agrochemicals and other modern scientific methods for contending with these threats, such reinforcements can only realistically help to win minor battles. For the Amazonian smallholder farmers that I came to meet, the image of the “fragile forest” was a wildly foreign concept. Instead, what they experienced was an environment of robust, defiant vitality. From their vantage point, humankind has not come anywhere near to conquering nature.

Taming nature?

Many researchers and scholars claim that humanity’s relationship to the environment is at a critical juncture, and I would agree. But I wonder to what extent we overestimate our power and underestimate that of nature, which is really the entirety of the world that is not Homo sapiens.

Although humans are now seen as independent drivers of global environmental change, clearly humanity is not in control of the planet’s forces, much less the only force on the planet. Witness hurricanes in New Orleans and New York and tsunamis in Java and Japan.

The Anthropocene should remind us that while our technologies have expanded our ability to impact the Earth, a much broader array of lifeforms and forces are constantly thwarting our attempts to wrest control of the world around us. The Zika virus, herbicide-resistant “superweeds,” flesh-eating microbes and accumulating CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere are all challenging humanity and its quest for planetary domination.

Canola cultivation in Australia: The increased use of crops resistant to one type of herbicides – another way man has attempted to control nature – has led to a response from nature in the form of weeds that are increasingly resistant to herbicides. Jan Smith/flickr

It is true that the success or survival of many species on this planet has recently hinged on their ability to adapt to human needs and the human presence. Widespread biodiversity loss is testament to humanity’s capacity to transform landscapes and the organisms that dwell within them.

But with the slow creep of sea-level rise and the onset of global climate change, it appears that humanity will face much greater challenges as it learns to adapt to shifting environmental conditions that it has helped set in motion. In many ways, the Anthropocene is rooted in a growing realization that we are in a state of ecological crisis that defies our control.

The question now is: What are we going to do about it? Leveraging technology “to tame nature” has never quite seemed to work out how we planned. At least on a local level, nature has a way of pushing back: Just look at Henry Ford’s failed rubber plantations in the Amazon or Chernobyl’s increasingly wild landscape that grew out of nuclear disaster.

Perhaps the Anthropocene’s greatest challenge will be forcing us to think beyond our strictly human needs and to understand those of the ecological systems in which we are embedded. It may just be that our lives depend upon it.