Earth Day and the Anthropocene

This post concludes our Earth Week blog series. Thank you for reading!

by Jason M. Kelly, editor of Rivers of the Anthropocene

On November 4, 2016, the Paris Climate Agreement went into effect. Signed and ratified by the vast majority of members of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the agreement wasn’t perfect. But, it was an important step forward in mitigating the worst effects of climate change. Four days later, the United States elected a president who had previously claimed that “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.

In the months that have followed, the new president and his administration have begun implementing a wholesale attack on climate science and environmental regulations. The new administration’s policies point to the close connections between society — politics, culture, and economy — and environmental systems. Rejecting scientific warnings, it has doubled down on its support of fossil fuel consumption and economic opportunism at the expense of the environment. Its justifications and appeals to the public — economic necessity, individual freedom, and nationalism — are framed through ideologies that have historical roots going back centuries. The actions that their policies enable will have environmental consequences that last far beyond the lifetimes of those currently serving in office.

The interrelations between society, culture, economy, politics, and environments have deep histories. In fact, to imagine sociocultural and geobiophysical systems as distinct entities would be a mistake; they are entangled. Historically, environmental contexts have played key roles in shaping sociocultural systems. And, humans have had greater or lesser impacts on their regional ecologies over tens of thousands of years through clear cutting, slash-and-burn agriculture, hunting and fishing, and flood control and irrigation systems.

Over the past several hundred years, the relationship between humans and their environments has intensified as human populations have grown. Consumption of resources, magnified by the energy unleashed by burning fossil fuels, has resulted in fundamental transformations of earth systems (e.g. carbon cycle, water cycle, nitrogen cycle). And, political contingencies, cultural beliefs, and economic desires have reinforced behaviors that continue to destabilize the planet’s systems.

Because humans have become such a powerful environmental force, a growing number of scientists have suggested that we have entered a new geological epoch — the Anthropocene. Humanity’s impact on the planet can be measured in sediments and ice cores. Its actions have entered the geological record.

Understanding the Anthropocene requires more than just researching the environmental effects of human actions however. As important is understanding the role that human systems play in shaping behaviors — for example, the ways that capitalism and imperialism have encouraged certain practices of resource extraction and modes of thinking. Doing so allows us to address more than just the consequences of human action. It helps us understand the root causes as well.

At its core then, research on the Anthropocene is focused on exploring the historical entanglements between sociocultural and geobiophysical systems. This necessitates multidisciplinarity — of scientists, social scientists, humanists, artists, policy makers, and community organizers working together to tackle environmental challenges in all of their complexities. This work includes descriptive and analytical approaches, but also public engagement meant to influence policy and public attitudes. In the current political context, this type of work is one important tool in mitigating the worst effects of climate change denial and attacks on environmental protections.


Jason M. Kelly is Director of the IUPUI Arts and Humanities Institute and Associate Professor of History at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.


A Right-Now Battle for the Future of America’s Public Lands

This post is part of our Earth Week blog series. Check back every day between now and Friday for new blog posts. 

by Stephen Nash, author of Grand Canyon for Sale: Public Lands versus Private Interests in the Era of Climate Change

America’s national park system is the most familiar component of our vast estate of federal public lands: forests and grasslands, wildlife refuges, millions of acres of rangelands. These landscapes all add up to more than a fourth of the U.S. national dirt. Earth Week 2017 finds the survival of their natural systems increasingly vulnerable, politically and biologically.

The plan long promoted by conservation biologists and environmentalists, and seriously contemplated by the federal government in the recent past, was to move toward connecting these lands to help ensure their protection from industrial exploitation and development pressures, and to enable species to adapt and migrate in the face of quickly arriving climate change.

But a powerful, well-funded political movement is pushing in the other direction: to atomize federal public lands, hand them over to the states, and privatize them. My book Grand Canyon for Sale: Public Lands versus Private Interests in the Era of Climate Change details this conflict, its origins, and its political and ideological supporters, from ranchers to billionaires. The Trump administration has been both equivocal and non-vocal on this issue so far — hard to prophesy how this map will look on Earth Week 2018, and beyond.

With Grand Canyon National Park as the foreground example, we can also see the biological threats to the future of public lands: recurring waves of imported invasive species that disrupt ecosystems, a lengthening list of endangered species whose populations steadily diminish and, especially, climate change. These factors are already transforming public lands, including Grand Canyon.

Fortunately, natural scientists and their allies spend whole careers on research and field work to mitigate these losses and plan for a radically different climatic future. Their work, too, is embattled. Many of them will celebrate Earth Day around the U.S. this weekend by taking part in a March for Science. For public lands and for science both, we’ll see what direction the coming year takes…


Stephen Nash is the author of award-winning books on science and the environment, and his reporting has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, BioScience, Archaeology, and The New Republic. He is Visiting Senior Research Scholar at the University of Richmond


Big Sur and California’s Beloved Coastline

This post is part of our Earth Week blog series. Check back every day between now and Friday for new blog posts. 

by Shelley Alden Brooks, author of Big Sur: The Making of a Prized California Landscape

California’s world-famous coastline is integral to the state’s economy, to residents’ sense of well-being, and to the California Dream, but only since the 1970s has a groundswell of support emerged to protect this prized resource from spoliation. Alarm over rapid change along the coast, including its deterioration from residential and commercial development, disappearing wetlands, new marinas, and the proposed freeways and nuclear plants, catalyzed the people who had come to know the coast as the geographic “soul” of California. In 1976, the state legislature passed the Coastal Act to make permanent the California Coastal Commission, an agency created out of a ballot initiative passed four years earlier. The Coastal Commission’s efforts to guide sustainable coastal land use and increase coastal access have prompted support and appreciation from many Californians, as well as emulation from coastal governments around the country and the world. But there has also been pushback and resistance from the California industries, government officials, and private citizens who believe the Coastal Act gave the state agency too much power to regulate private property.

My book explores how locals in Big Sur (an exceptionally beautiful 75-mile stretch of California’s central coast) have worked alongside county and state officials to seek a balance between the priorities of preservation and property rights. Built into the parameters of Big Sur’s well-preserved scenery is an unusual conviction that preservation and habitation can be mutually supportive endeavors. In part this has been achieved because Monterey County and Big Sur residents began in the mid twentieth century to pioneer open-space planning, conservation easements, intergovernmental collaboration and citizen activism, and transfer development credits to accommodate the needs of Big Sur’s natural and human communities. But Big Sur’s unique status also derives from the mystique created by iconic writers such as Robinson Jeffers and Henry Miller who used their talents to showcase this unusual meeting of beauty and culture. Today, the name ‘Big Sur’ conjures up images of a place uniquely Californian, carved out of the geologic and cultural forces of which the state has a disproportionate share. While Big Sur’s well-preserved vistas and minimal development embody the Coastal Act’s mission, its high-end real estate and vacation homes reflect the steep social costs associated with preservation.

Big Sur, like any landscape, is not static; shifting economic realities and perceptions of nature’s worth can alter the place. Ansel Adams acknowledged this in 1980 when he unsuccessfully campaigned for a federal seashore. However, if the integrity of Big Sur’s Coastal Commission-approved land use plan is maintained, including the protection of Highway 1 as a two-lane road, minimal change will come to the built environment. But it is not so much the physical boundaries (though these are formidable) that prevent overdevelopment in Big Sur, as the social boundaries erected to preserve something unique along the California coast. Considerable momentum backs the commitment to Big Sur’s wild and storied land, and the status of both of these elements will continue to reveal a good deal about Californians’ relationship to their beloved coast.


Shelley Alden Brooks teaches Twentieth-Century U.S., California, and Environmental History at the University of California, Davis. She also works for the California History-Social Science Project and serves on the statewide Environmental Literacy Steering Committee.


The Problem within Environmentalism

This post is part of our Earth Week blog series. Check back every day between now and Friday for new blog posts. 

by Laura Watt, author of The Paradox of Preservation: Wilderness and Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore

Earth Day is often celebrated with an iconic image of Earth as seen from space; against the black void, our curved home swimming with blue oceans and swirling with weather systems looks fragile and delicate. The message is unquestionably, don’t mess it up!

Inspirational as it is, this sort of image contributes to core problem within environmentalism—it perpetuates the notion that humans are somehow outside of nature, separate and distinct. It positions the natural world as observed from afar, at a great distance—a piece of gleaming treasure to be nestled in a velvet-lined box for safe keeping.

In contrast, my recent book The Paradox of Preservation: Wilderness and Working Landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore argues that we must consider natural and cultural elements of protected areas as essential components of whole landscapes, rather than as separate concerns diametrically opposed. Point Reyes is often heralded for its wild coastline, its plentiful bird and marine life, its winding trails through dappled forests and rolling grasslands. Yet much of what is perceived as wild nature is the product of centuries of human use and management. Like elsewhere across the Americas, Point Reyes was inhabited for centuries by native peoples, in this case several bands of coastal Miwok. Recent studies suggest extensive burning and other forms of indigenous vegetation management occurred over thousands of years. Since Mexican rancheros settled this part of California in the 1830s, the peninsula has been used extensively for raising cattle—drawn to the lush grasslands created and maintained by Miwok land management practices. Nearly two centuries of ranching has profoundly impacted the landscape, and kept the land open and relatively undeveloped, making it an attractive location for a national park unit. This natural landscape is full of the work of human hands.

And perhaps even more surprising, even our most urban landscapes are full of thriving nature. For example, Peter Alagona’s book After The Grizzly points out that a stable and growing population of the adorable, and formally endangered, San Joaquin Valley kit fox, for example, can be found in urban Bakersfield, even while the species is struggling in other, more “wild” parts of its range. Yet these city dwellers are invisible to most conservation efforts, except as a source of additional genetic diversity for their cousins living in nature reserves. Similar work documenting the habits of urban wildlife—a colleague recently explained how automatic cameras at Chicago intersections, intended to catch red-light runners, have revealed urban coyotes waiting for the light to change, having learned that it is easier to cross on the green—is forcing us to rethink our categories of natural and cultural as more organisms adapt themselves to “our” world.

John Muir famously described his beloved Sierra wildernesses as distant cathedrals where visitors should experience awe and wonder, which became the guiding vision for U.S. national parks. But have we listened solely to Muir for too long? Another voice deserving more attention is that of Aldo Leopold, whose pioneering advocacy for wilderness also wrote stressed the importance of re-establishing a personal and collaborative relationship with the natural world through working the land. For Leopold, admiring from afar or as an occasional visitor is not enough; we need to recognize our reliance on and co-existence with nature through living and working with it: “Conservation means harmony between men and land.” Point Reyes has long been ideally suited to be managed as a Leopoldian park, a place where the wild and the pastoral are not in competition but are complementary, thriving side by side. It provides an important reminder for Earth Day, that we are all in it together.


Laura Alice Watt is Professor of Environmental History and Policy at Sonoma State University.


The Mountains That Remade America

This is the first post in our Earth Week blog series. Check back every day between now and Friday for new blog posts. 

by Craig Jones, author of The Mountains That Remade America: How Sierra Nevada Geology Impacts Modern Life

Earth Day falls the day after John Muir’s birthday, an apropos juxtaposition as Muir’s influence can be found in the concept of lobbying on behalf of the earth. Although Emerson and Thoreau promoted nature, theirs was an eastern nature that was recovering from settlement; Muir’s untamed western nature led him to a far more active role.

When John Muir began wandering the Sierra Nevada in 1868, its western foothills were already savaged by the Gold Rush. Forests were being felled for timber to support the deep mines in the Mother Lode and Comstock. Yet, almost peculiarly, the High Sierra where Muir wandered was free of settlements, and mines, and loggers. It was also relatively empty of Native Americans, largely because of disease, warfare, dislocation and starvation, but also because the high part of the range was never more than a seasonal refuge for the tribes that otherwise lived on the range’s flanks. The absence of miners and Indians was because of the granite backbone of the range, too high to settle and barren of minerals. It was the absence of nearly all things human, quite distinct from eastern lands, that led Muir to state “that wildness is a necessity” and note “in God’s wildness lies the hope of the world – the great fresh unblighted, unredeemed wilderness.” Muir had removed people from wilderness.

Muir’s literary excision of native peoples from these wild lands they had used elevated unsettled land to a higher plane. While Easterners hiked through second growth forest between towns, Muir demanded landscapes wholly untouched by civilization. In observing the growth of timbering and sheepherding, he saw his touchstone lands at risk. This led him to political activism instead of mere literary adventurism; he began to write advocacy pieces for Eastern magazines; he would lobby politicians to create new parks. In his struggles to protect lands around Yosemite Valley, Muir recognized that a broader organization was needed. And so he helped to found the Sierra Club.

Muir’s Sierra Club had a unique aspect to its mission, stating in the original Agreement of Association in 1892 to “enlist the support and co-operation of the people and the government in preserving the forests and other features of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.” This was no mere hiking club, though that was part of the club’s persona; this was a genuine lobbying organization from its start in 1892.

In the year prior to the first Earth Day, the club went to court on behalf of a mountain valley named Mineral King in the Sierra that would lead, about a year after the first Earth Day, to a cherished opinion made by Justice William O. Douglas: “Contemporary public concern for protecting nature’s ecological equilibrium should lead to the conferral of standing upon environmental objects to sue for their own preservation. This suit would therefore be more properly labeled as Mineral King v. Morton.” Muir’s club had helped make it possible for the earth itself to be a plantiff in U.S. courts.


Craig H. Jones is Professor of Geological Sciences and Fellow with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He has published peer-reviewed research in ScienceNature, and in prominent earth-science journals. He is also the coauthor of Introduction to Applied Geophysics, and he blogs as the Grumpy Geophysicist.


For Dave Brower, every day was Earth Day.

Brower 1

Frequently compared to John Muir, David Brower was the first executive director of the Sierra Club, founded Friends of the Earth, and helped secure passage of the Wilderness Act, among other key achievements. Tapping his passion for wilderness and for the mountains he scaled in his youth, he was a central figure in the creation of the Point Reyes National Seashore and of the North Cascades and Redwood national parks. In addition, Brower worked tirelessly in successful efforts to keep dams from being built in Dinosaur National Monument and the Grand Canyon.

The late 1960s and early 1970s saw a dramatic blossoming of the environmental movement with the creation of Friends of the Earth, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, Greenpeace, Environmental Action, and the Environmental Defense Fund, among others.

Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin sensed the public’s growing concern for the environment and proposed a national environmental teach-in (borrowing language from Vietnam protests) that was soon dubbed Earth Day. Nelson recruited Denis Hayes, then an undergraduate at Stanford, to sign up supporters and organize rallies and demonstrations and other activities. The first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970, and was the largest such outpouring of concern to that date.

When Dave Brower heard of the plan for Earth Day, he got in touch with his old friend and collaborator Ian Ballantine of Ballantine Books, who is sometimes credited with pioneering inexpensive paperback books. Brower and Ballantine had cooperated on publishing projects when Brower was still at the Sierra Club, most notably producing a line of calendars illustrated with beautiful nature photographs that were an instant success. Brower suggested that Ballantine and Friends of the Earth collaborate on a book to complement and inform Earth Day. It would have to happen fast. Ballantine agreed. Brower recruited a Cal student named Garrett DeBell, who assembled previously published material and solicited original pieces from here and there.

The contents were an eclectic mix. One piece on “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis” blamed Christianity for the problem. Paul Ehrlich decried the population explosion. Ken Brower, Dave’s eldest son, reminded readers of the importance of wilderness. Garrett Hardin of UC Santa Barbara explained his theory of “The Tragedy of the Commons.” There was a short piece titled “Ecopornography, or How to Spot an Ecological Phony,” criticizing misleading advertisements being run by oil companies and strip miners.

DeBell somehow put a manuscript together in around three weeks, and Ballantine produced bound books in another three or so weeks. It was titled The Environmental Handbook and it took off, selling more than a million copies in a few months.

Earth Day was off to a good start.

David Brower

About guest blogger and author of David Brower: The Making of the Environmental Movement, Tom Turner: Tom has worked at the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, and Earthjustice. He is the author of Wild by Law; Sierra Club: 100 Years of Protecting Nature; Justice on Earth; Roadless Rules; and hundreds of articles and op-eds on the environment.


A Sea of Glass and the Blaschkas’ Fragile Legacy

What caught Drew Harvell’s eye first was a glass octopus. Inspired by the incredible glass marine sculptures of Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka, she soon set off to search for their living counterparts. In her new book A Sea of Glass, she tells the story of this journey of a lifetime while exploring unusual biology of these ancient animals and showing us that our ocean ecosystems—like the Blaschkas’ works of art—are as fragile as glass.

In honor of Earth Day, check out a slideshow of incredible Blaschka creations below, and learn more about Drew’s book here.

Additionally, click here to save 30% on new and bestselling science titles.

  • Common Octopus (Photo: Gary Hodges)
  • Sea Pansy (Photo: Gary Hodges)
  • From Left to Right: Siphonophores: Apolemia uvaria (Photo: Kent Loeffler) and Rosacea cymbiformis (Photo:Gray Hodges)
  • From Left to Right: mauve stinger (Photo: Drew Harvell), mauve stinger glass (Photo: Corning Museum of Glass), stinger watercolor (Photo: Corning Museum of Glass)
  • tentacle tubeworm (Photo: C. Smith)
  • From Left to Right: Doto Glass (Photo: C. Smith), Doto live (Photo: Reyn Yoshioka)
  • seadragon glass (Photo: Guido Mocafico), sea dragon watercolor (Photo: Corning Museum)
  • histioteuthis before (Photo: E. Brill), histioteuthis after (Photo: K. Loeffler)
  • common seastar in glass (Photo: Guido Mocafico)

Earth Day Special: What Do You Believe?

This guest post by author Linda Weintraub, To Life!: Eco Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet, considers personal beliefs around environmental issues and art for Earth Day.

A planet in peril has convinced many environmentalists to call for a complete overhaul of humanity’s current means for acquiring, using, and discarding resources. They share a widespread conviction that that the seeds of environmental reform are not tangible or technological; they are conceptual and subjective. While our material interactions with the planet originate in attitudes and assumptions, no authority exists to define and enforce the cultural values that generate sustainable actions.

Photo of vapor emissions from the Salmisaari coal burning power plant illuminated with a high power green laser animation.
HeHe: Nuage Vert

Nonetheless, environmental reform depends as much upon each individual’s subjective opinions as upon industry’s technologies and the government’s ordinances. Often we are not aware of our own attitudes and outlooks until someone asks for our opinion.

The concepts and choices in this personal survey (see link below) are designed to help you construct a blueprint of your individual environmental beliefs. It is hoped that this blueprint may encourage you to reflect upon your material interactions and consider integrating these insights into your creative art practices.

Thus, let us honor the Earth on Earth Day by reflecting upon its current state and the choices we might make on its behalf.

Download the Personal Environmental Survey, and find additional classroom exercises here.

 

Cover image of Linda Weintraub's To Life!: Eco-Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet, ISBN 9780520273627

Linda Weintraub is author of To Life!: Eco Art in Pursuit of a Sustainable Planet, Art on the Edge and Over: Searching for Art’s Meaning in Contemporary SocietyIn the Making: Creative Options for Contemporary Art and Avant-Guardians: Textlets in Art and Ecology. She is a contributor to the Women Environmental Artists Directory (WEAD) magazine Issue 6 on ‘Dirty Water’, and her upcoming appearances include Evergreen College, Washington (April 22-23) and BBOX radio interview (April 29).

 

 


Earth Day 2010: Shaping the Future

Red tide, a toxic algal bloom caused by excess nitrogen. Photo: Miriam Godfrey, NIWA

“We are the first generation that can predict the future of the world…We can also choose to shape the future.”—The Atlas of Global Conservation

Today, 40 years after the first Earth Day, the planet faces new challenges. The earth and the oceans are warming, leading to concerns about floods and droughts, extinction, and mosquito-borne diseases. Chemicals pollute land, water, and air, threatening health and habitats; invasive species wreak havoc on delicate ecosystems; and human population and consumption are straining the world’s resources.

“Many of us don’t have a lot of connection to nature in our day-to-day life, but…many resources we rely on—whether clean water or fish from the ocean—are being threatened at a scale we might not have realized”, said Atlas of Global Conservation editor Jennifer Molnar in a National Geographic interview.

But with new challenges come new opportunities for conservation. Reforestation of depleted areas can reduce greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, customs regulations have had some success in preventing species invasions, and habitat restoration can help heal floundering ecosystems. Millions of square kilometers of once-threatened land is now protected, and individual and community conservation efforts add up to have a global impact.

Old-growth western cedar trees in Idaho. Photo: www.lelandhoward.com

Today we have the technology to view our entire planet with satellites, and to gather and synthesize masses of data that were once too much to grasp. Scientists at the Nature Conservancy used these tools to create The Atlas of Global Conservation, a complete guide to the state of our planet. Published today in honor of Earth Day, the Atlas gives a snapshot of the natural world—where habitats are most depleted and which species are on the edge of extinction, and where there are still vast grasslands and forests that need protection.

The Atlas also connects our everyday actions with the world’s ecosystems, showing how our choices at the grocery store or how we get to work affect the future of our planet. We know that our combined actions have the power to damage the earth, but we also have the power—and the responsibility—to find solutions.

Percent of the earth's habitats that have been converted by humans. If habitat loss continues, scientists say that half the earth's species could go extinct in this century—but it doesn't have to be this way.