A series of recent articles have me thinking about the ideas of Peter Kareiva (pictured left), who is chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, itself the world's largest environmental organization. Kareiva's original essay,Conservation in the Anthropocene, can be found online; and extended discussion on Andrew Revkin's Dot Earth blog is here, here, and here.
The term "Anthropocene" is a recent invention. Geologists would say that we are living in the Holocene Epoch, beginning about 12000 years ago (at the end of the last ice age) and continuing to the present day. It reflects an understanding that a new era has dawned, one in which the primary influence on the ecology of the earth has become one of its own species - ourselves, the human race. The word is being considered by the Geological Society of America and may become "official" terminology soon.
The Kareiva article uses the "Anthropocene" language as a lead-in to an indictment of the strategies of the 20th-century conservation movement, which (he claims) have focused too much on protecting a supposedly-fragile Nature from the ravages of humanity, thereby creating parks and reserves as "islands of the Holocene in the world of the Anthropocene." Conservation, writes Kareiva, "cannot promise a return to pristine, prehuman landscapes.
Humankind has already profoundly transformed the planet and will
continue to do so. What conservation could promise instead is a new vision of a planet in
which nature -- forests, wetlands, diverse species, and other ancient
ecosystems -- exists amid a wide variety of modern, human landscapes."
It's intriguing how this kind of discussion harks back to one of the seminal texts of the modern religious-ecological movement, Lynn White's thesis which charges that the "dominion mandate" of Genesis 1:28 is responsible for the exploitation of nature. One can hear echoes of White's charge that Christianity "is the most anthropocentric religion the world has ever seen" when Kareiva's followers explain that "ecosystem services" (what the ecosystem provides for us humans) must be the basis of a "cost benefit analysis" which will allow us to "triage" what should be saved (these quotations are from this article). Yet, interestingly, Kareiva turns this charge, suggesting that conservationists promoting "wilderness untrammeled by man" are the real dualists..."it never existed, at least in the past thousand years, and arguably longer". In the end, the one point on which both he and his opponents seem to agree is that the separation of humanity from the rest of the created order is a mistake. Are they right?