The new natures of the Anthropocene

Part of a series of blog posts I wrote on the Anthropocene for Umeå University’s Forskarbloggen in 2013.

Easter is a good opportunity to contemplate the death and resurrection of nature. One of the most prevalent narratives about nature in the Anthropocene is one of decline – of species extinction, biodiversity loss, degraded ecosystem services, encroachment on wilderness areas, natural disasters, global climate change, and so on. People have left their fingerprints on everything and the world is a poorer place for it, or so the story goes. Such narratives of decline and catastrophe have been important catalysts in the formation of the environmental movement and continue to be major challenges that we’ll need to deal with one way or another in the future. As argued earlier, all of these can also be defined as a wicked problem or part of a whole wicked tangle of problems that can’t be solved through simple fixes.

Note that I chose to call this a narrative about nature. This is not the same as saying that these problems are fictional and thus don’t exist (they do). Narratives are storytelling mechanisms that organize and connect events in time and space. They are one of the ways in which we attempt to make sense of the world around us, as individuals and as societies. If we want to make any headway with the environmental problems that we face in the Anthropocene, we need to think critically about the narratives we tell to ourselves and to others about nature and culture.

At the core, narratives about environmental decline begin with the idea of nature as once whole, pristine, and untouched. Once upon a time there was an environmental baseline that we not only measure, but also judge environmental change against. If there are people in the story, they tend to live in harmony with nature, knowing their place in the ecosystem. Environmental degradation often follows with the introduction of new technologies or when people start showing up in places where they don’t belong. For example, one of the big discussions in environmental history has been whether the exploitation and degradation of nature came with European settlers to the American continent. While the coming of the Europeans dramatically changed the scale and speed of the exploitation of natural resources, the American continent was far from pristine before 1492. Native Americans were as thoroughly entangled with their environments as the Europeans were, altering ecologies and ecosystems in ways that were not necessarily sustainable.

Few narratives have been as powerful for the environmental movement as the one about wilderness. It is such an evocative word, wilderness, making us think of large untouched areas of pure, undisturbed nature where people haven’t messed up things yet. The Anthropocene does not reach into the wilderness, making it a place or perhaps a state of mind where we can go to escape the frustration of wicked problems. Prominent environmental historian Bill Cronon stirred up much debate when he challenged this idea of untouched wilderness in his essay “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature” in the 1990s. He argued that by setting aside “real” nature as a place without humans, we “leave ourselves little hope of discovering what an ethical, sustainable, honorable human place in nature might actually look like.” In the wide-ranging “great new wilderness debate” that followed, many found it hard to give up the idea of untouched nature.

So how useful is this idea of a once-pristine world as a baseline for fields like conservation biology, restoration ecology, or just for environmentalists in general? Not very, argues science journalist Emma Marris. Her book, Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World, is a powerful vision of new natures that are hybrids of “wild” nature and human management. New natures are being born all around us, every day, but these don’t always fit our image of “wild” nature. Urban ecologies, de-extinction, species reintroduction, re-wilding – all these are just some examples of new, hybrid forms of “nature” in the Anthropocene. So do invasive species that move into new areas as a result of urbanization, development, or climate change. How are we to say what belongs and what does not?

What kinds of new natures can we find in Västerbotten or around Umeå? Well, we can look at animals and species, as Dolly Jørgensen explores in her current research project and that my colleague Erland Mårald wrote about in VK not long ago. We tend to think of particular kinds of wildlife as belonging in particular landscapes. These become native species, whereas others are “alien” or “invasive.” The problem is that animals have their own interests: they move around, trying to find places with food, potential mates, or other things that interest or attract them. The recent controversy over the Junsele wolf is a good example – this unruly wolf simply doesn’t want to stay put in the place that we have designated as an appropriate and culturally acceptable habitat for it. Another example is the raccoon dog (Nyctereutes procyonoides) that Erland Mårald wrote about, an ”unwanted” species that is currently moving into Scandinavia from the east. We need to be prepared for an increasing number of such uneasy encounters with animals and other organisms as the Northern climate continues changing.

Maciej Zaremba provided us with another example in his stunning article series for Dagens Nyheter (and subsequent book) on clear-cutting practices (“kalhygge”) in Swedish forests. The problem with most Swedish forest is that it is a natural resource in both meanings of the word. The forest is one of the natural settings that most people appreciate and actively use for recreation. But at the same time, the forest is a resource managed by forestry companies over fascinatingly long time-scales, to be harvested when the trees are ready. Put somewhat simply, one group sees the forest, while the other sees the trees. Swedish forests can be considered one big organic factory, but since the production time stretches over several generations, people start thinking about the factory forest as natural forest, one that has been there for as long as they can remember and that thus should continue to be there in the future. The big problem arises when we start thinking of the naturalness of the forest as an either/or condition, when it is actually both. I suspect that this paradox at the core of Zaremba’s narrative makes us as uncomfortable as his exposure of unethical forestry practices.

More than 20 years ago, the ecologist Daniel Botkin wrote that “nature in the twenty-first century will be a nature that we make; the question is the degree to which this molding will be intentional or unintentional, desirable or undesirable.” We can’t understand the changing world of the Anthropocene without simultaneously considering our own place in this world . But to do this, we need to be open for new natures as well as our traditional understandings of nature. As Bill Cronon concluded in his wilderness essay, “if wildness can stop being (just) out there and start being (also) in here, if it can start being as humane as it is natural, then perhaps we can get on with the unending task of struggling to live rightly in the world—not just in the garden, not just in the wilderness, but in the home that encompasses them both.”

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