Q&A with Jason Anthony
An inform(ation)al interview about the Anthropocene
While studying at Oxford, I took a course on environmental sociology. My tutor had me read articles that tried to define, once and for all, our turbulent times. While geologists refer to it as the Holocene epoch, some academics think our modern era should be called the Cthulucene, a nod to H.P. Lovecraft’s undersea monster. The concept, originated by sociologist Donna Haraway, is supposed to describe a currently-unimaginable estrangement from our environment. She and others like her argue that humans will soon inhabit a world where individuality is lost either through unsustainable consumption or environmental destruction (aka climate change).
Science fiction aside, the most commonly used term among environmentalists is the Anthropocene, defined as the period when humans began having a cumulative, outsized impact on the environment. Humanity has until recently been willfully ignorant not just of this word but also its meaning. Indeed, some entities still insist we live in a world where businesses & people can ignore their influence on others — just look at this week’s Supreme Court ruling on carbon emissions. Whether we like it or not, all recent climate reports conclude that inclusive policies and diverse adaptation strategies are key to overcoming climate change’s risks. Scientists will continue to make predictive models and innovate new & useful technologies, but it is up to us whether to employ them.
Our species become so powerful that new terms have been coined to describe our situation. Despite our visible influence on the world, humanity’s desire to preserve and protect our home has dwindled. Nowadays individual people are poor caretakers of the environment, in part because we hold far less power to act than our governments. But there is no time like the present to recognize and act upon our ability to become positive changemakers, for in doing so we can push our leaders towards taking quick, decisive action on saving our lands & oceans. We need, in short, a little help realizing our powerful potential for good.
Since beginning In Circulation in late February, I’ve been browsing through Substack’s listings of other science writers and came across Jason Anthony. He writes the newsletter Field Guide to the Anthropocene, which provides well-written, in-depth essays on any given environmental or political topic (some of my favorite posts are about the IPCC Report and democracies versus authoritarian regimes). I was curious about another writer working “on the fringes of the public’s attention” and wanted to get his perspective. He kindly agreed to an interview, and this week we emailed back & forth about climate change and global ocean policy. I think you all will benefit from reading his opinions (plus it might be a nice change of pace to hear from someone with a less-scientific background). Hopefully his writings will add some context to our contemporary times, inspiring us to look around and see how awesome — in all senses of the word — our influence truly is.
Background & motivation
Diana: First, what motivated you to start your newsletter? Do you have a science or humanities background (or both, like me)?
Jason: My motivation has both long- and short-term sparks behind it. I’m not a scientist — I have a MFA in poetry and majored in English — but have always been science-adjacent and an avid reader of science news. My father was a fisheries scientist who spent his career managing North Atlantic commercial fisheries stocks. He wasn’t an environmentalist, but his philosophy was that management was crucial because our impacts on the rest of life are substantive and ongoing. I ended up working in Antarctica for a decade; it was a great place to see science in action describing and advising this world we’re rapidly transforming. After writing a book about Antarctic history and culture, I ruminated for some years on another book about the connections between Antarctica & the Anthropocene but couldn’t quite pin down how I wanted to write it.
Then a few years ago, my family ended up in a pitched battle with an ill-conceived and aggressive large-scale development next door to the family farm here in Maine. The irony was that the developer was a botanical garden with Disneyland ambitions: although they described the proposal as “green” and environmentally friendly, they planned to clearcut 24 acres of habitat for several significant vernal pools...! (In terms of forest biodiversity, vernal pools are essential, particularly for amphibians.) The battle went badly, for both the vernal pools and us, and it got me thinking that if even “green” institutions in a nature-friendly place like Maine were capable of such egregious mistakes, there was a serious need for writers to explain the world as it is — transforming rapidly toward an Eocene climate and the cusp of a mass extinction — not as we imagine it to be.
The importance of the Anthropocene
D: Could you define the term “Anthropocene” for those who are unfamiliar with the term?
J: The Earth has a 4-billion-year history written in the stones. That history has been mapped by geologists into sections both large and small. Many of us have heard of the Jurassic, for example, which was an ancient period in Earth’s history. The Anthropocene is the new proposed name for the current geological epoch. It has been proposed because humans have already transformed the Earth so extensively that even if we disappeared tomorrow our signature would be visible in the geologic record millions of years from now.
Depending on who you ask, the Anthropocene began anywhere from 10,000 years ago (with the birth of agriculture and other cultural shifts) to two centuries ago (with the Industrial Revolution) to several decades ago (during the great acceleration of population and its impacts in the mid-20th century). However, in the context of Earth’s 4-billion-year history, there’s no real difference between these options. In my opinion, “Anthropocene” is an awkward and problematic term to use. It implies that all humans are responsible for Earth’s transformation, rather than a handful of nations made wealthy on fossil fuels and the global resources they (we) have commandeered. But I haven’t seen a better replacement.
A new understanding for a new audience
D: How does your writing help your target audience understand what it means to live in the Anthropocene? Some writers aim to teach their readers while others want to challenge them. What is your goal in writing Field Guide?
J: I’m hoping to serve an audience of people who have a sense that the world is deeply changed by human activity and who want to know more about both the problems and the solutions. My “Field Guide” concept is built around the idea that we need to be familiar with the scale and depth of Earth’s transformation. We need to see it everywhere because it is everywhere.
On some level, every writer wants readers to at least glimpse the world as they see it, and that’s certainly true for me. Early in my adult life I felt astonished at how many people seemed to neither notice nor care the natural world that had nurtured our species was disappearing. I know now that many of us do notice & do care but don’t know what to do about it. We’re all trapped in a runaway civilization that’s intensely focused on building a life both trivial and wildly destructive.
Are we too late or just in time?
D: Some people (myself included) think it’s too late to stop climate change. Do you agree?
J: Absolutely. Climate change is already well underway. The world is largely hotter and drier, weather is less predictable, species are on the move, ecosystems are in flux, the ocean is 30% more acidic than any time in human history, and everyone from agriculturists to insurance companies to island nations is struggling to adapt. The question is, how much further this will go before our actions slow and then reverse the process. We’re over the threshold into a catastrophe unfamiliar in the entire history of our species; only its size and duration remain to be determined. If everyone truly understood the full scale of climate change already occurring, and the full array of problems being caused for natural and human communities, then most humans would be rallying to the cause. But not enough of us understand it yet. So I’m trying to do my little part with the Field Guide.
Catastrophizing & how to avoid information overload
D: In a previous post I wrote that many journalists & popular news outlets catastrophize climate change by provoking an emotional reaction. In doing so they leave out many important facts: for example, headlines about the Great Barrier Reef’s bleaching events often do not reference new scientific discoveries that some corals are more resilient to heat stress than others (or that many corals recover from bleaching). Similarly, when covering the latest IPCC Report the media’s call to action was almost always reducing greenhouse gasses, implying that all other measures would be futile. While lowering emissions is of course fundamental to reversing climate change, the Report emphasized the need for investment in specific adaptation strategies & mitigation technologies, a conclusion that was at times conveniently ignored. When composing each entry to your Field Guide, do you find it difficult to incorporate all the necessary information? And do you share my frustration with the “mainstream” media’s treatment of climate solutions?
J: Reporting on climate change is a difficult task in a hypermediated world. The science is complex, the time frame is large, and the foundation of the story, no matter how optimistic, makes us feel at least a little bit guilty (as it should). In a global crisis is it the media’s job to just report the basic facts or to motivate action? Should they keep it simple or make an effort to convey its complexity? As always, the media often focuses on the simple versions and reports within the echo chamber on the same things other media are reporting. Media and consumers like that kind of repetition – up to a point. Provoking emotional reactions with news stories probably seems like the best course for some journalists and editors because it can both make it real and motivate a response. But as you note it emphasizes catastrophe over the more nuanced reality. Even within your coral bleaching example, though, the amount of good news within the bad is a minority, and emphasis on those few corals that promise a modicum of coral survival by mid-century could make listeners/readers feel like they’re off the hook. It doesn’t take much for people to believe they’re off the hook, right? That’s partly how we got here. So I see it as a balancing act (made all the trickier because the topic of climate change has been politicized by fossil fuel companies).
Yes, while writing Field Guide it is difficult to know how much research and information to incorporate. Some readers are voracious, while others want a lighter info load to digest each week. And for my own sanity I have to identify limits on my version of a story that could easily generate books.
The ‘uncharismatic’ ocean
D: The world’s most powerful & influential governments (aka the West) often ignore the oceans when developing environmental policies. Why do you think this is? And do you think it’s necessary for these future climate solutions to include measures to protect and conserve our oceans?
J: You’re so right about the lack of attention on the oceans. Governments and other policymakers are, I think, reflecting basic human nature. The oceans are entwined in nearly every aspect of human life – from climate to dinner – but because we don’t live in or on the oceans we don’t think or worry about them as much as we should. You mentioned in your piece on the problem of catastrophe reporting that we have a hard time thinking of the ocean as part of our daily environment, and I think that’s correct.
As you know, I wrote up a two-part series on the state of the oceans last year. There’s so much that we need to be paying attention to and working to change. Climate policy should be attending to the health of the oceans because the oceans are essential for global biodiversity and human survival. The story at the core of this that I think about a lot is ocean acidification. The oceans have been absorbing the bulk of our excess carbon, and the increase in carbonic acid is rapidly changing the entire foundation of oceanic food webs. You may be more tuned into this discussion, Diana, but other than some research here or some start-ups there I have heard very little about investment in active mitigation strategies that can promise even a little of the reduction in acidification we’ll need to sustain ocean biomes and fisheries.
Our collective future
D: Lastly, how do you think the next 50 years of the Anthropocene will play out? Will humanity continue to harm the planet or will we finally, collectively, take responsibility for & act to stop climate change?
J: Hard question, but the easy answer is both. There is so much Anthropocene harm baked into our civilizational norms (chemical-based agriculture, greenhouse gas production, population growth, overfishing, etc.). Even as we slowly begin to respond to the now-apparent acute consequences of climate change, we’ll be pushing well beyond the boundaries of what a healthy, biodiverse planet can support. That’s the bad news. The good news is that once 1) large-scale drawdowns of carbon and methane emissions become the norm, 2) industrial-scale agriculture becomes supportive of biodiversity and 3) care for the health of the oceans becomes a global priority, things should stabilize. I don’t, however, have a sense of how long that will take. Furthermore, improving the conditions for the full & beautiful array of life on Earth to a point that is better than where we are today is a much, much harder goal to achieve or predict. But returning the Earth to the state it was in my childhood (or that of my parents’) should be the goal. Where we are now is neither healthy nor sustainable.
This interview has been edited for clarity. To read more of Jason’s writings, click below:
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