Alienation in the Anthropocene
by Mike Schut, Farm Table Foundation, www.farmtablefoundation.org
Say what? Do you remember–when was it–maybe in high school, that list of geological epochs? Miocene, Pliocene, Pleistocene, Holocene, to name the four most recent. Well, I certainly don’t; I always have to look it up. Our current epoch is the Holocene.
Or is it? At a conference twenty years ago, atmospheric chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen essentially blurted out to his colleagues that he believed humanity had so altered earth’s systems that we had entered a new geological epoch. He called it the “Anthro[human]pocene.1”
Something that significant doesn’t just change because a renowned scientist says so. But the stunning reality is that Dr. Crutzen’s suggestion had enough credibility that the body responsible for naming geological epochs, the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), established an Anthropocene working group to investigate the matter.
It’s stunning because geological epochs are caused by—well, geological forces: things like catastrophic volcanic events, or massive asteroids striking the earth. Suggesting that our current epoch might be more accurately called the Anthropocene means acknowledging that humanity has become a geological force. It’s also stunning because changes in geological epochs don’t happen every day. Most epochs last millions of years. The Holocene is a babe, just 11,500 years old.
The Anthropocene working group consisted of scientists charged with considering reams of scientific evidence. For example, it is well established that two significant markers signaling that a geological epoch has changed are changes in climate and mass extinction events. Right now, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are currently just north of 410 parts per million. They have not been that high since the mid-Pliocene epoch 3 million years ago.2 And, you and I are living in the midst of a mass extinction event.3 Species are going extinct today at a rate not seen since the disappearance of the dinosaurs.
Those are two significant signals that we are living in a different geological epoch. But there’s another quality to our shared experience today that, to me, is an even more convincing piece of evidence: our alienation from the rest of the natural world.
Signs of our alienation abound. Ask yourself these two questions: how many corporate logos would you recognize? How many species of native plants and native animals could you identify? According to Wright Institute child psychologist Dr. Allen Kanner, by the time an American child is three, they can recognize an average of 100 brand logos.4
Or try this: consider your primary source of news. When, and how often, does that station or outlet highlight the latest stories about the natural world? When, and how often, does it highlight the latest stories about the economy? Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) features thirty minutes of economic news on “Marketplace” every day at 6 pm, prime time! Public radio’s show focused on the natural world, “Living on Earth,” airs for an hour at…well, I had to look it up, and actually MPR does not air it at all.
Daily we are told that the economy is more important than the ecological well-being on which the health of any and all economies rest.
Perhaps the most concrete arena in which we experience alienation from the natural world is seen in how little we know about the food we eat. Where, and with what chemicals, was that tomato grown? Did that broiler in your soup pot ever see the light of day? Was that burger pumped full of antibiotics? Were the apples in your pie laced with insecticides? How fairly was the coffee farmer paid for your daily cup of joe?
The natural world—soil, light, water, seed, animal—literally turns into you, into me, through the food we enjoy every day. Farm Table’s purpose is to rekindle connections between people and local food, farmers, and the land. We recognize the alienation, and we want to be involved in reknitting the relationships that we also recognize are there within each one of us.
If indeed our time is marked by the stunning recognition that we now live in a new epoch, the Anthropocene, then healing one of the markers of that time, our alienation from the natural world, is one of the most consequential movements to which we can give our attention and care.
1. The Anthropocene epoch: have we entered a new phase of planetary history?” The Guardian, May 30, 2019, by Nicola Davison.
2. “Ice-Free Arctic in Pliocene, Last Time CO2 Levels above 400 PPM.” Scientific American, May 10, 2013, by Stephanie Paige Ogburn.
3. See Elizabeth Kolbert’s excellent book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.