Saturday, October 21, 2023

The Tragedy of Living in the Anthropocene

The possibilities for a human life in the Anthropocene are well beyond what prior eras of human history could have ever imagined. We can provide clean drinking water to millions of people, on demand. We can cure (most) bacterial infections. We have eradicated deadly and harmful diseases through the development of vaccines. We can treat many chronic illnesses, saving some from early death and providing a life worth living to many.

            We have heat, air conditioning, refrigerators, stoves, and ovens. We have washers and dryers, eliminating the time-consuming requirement of washing things by hand. We live in modern housing, which protects us from incessant natural threats, such as insects and other predators.

            We can travel thousands of miles in the span of a few hours, bridging the chasm that geographic distance puts between individuals. We can drive to remote and wild places in the world, chasing new adventures. We can develop new hobbies and find new friends because we are no longer captive to a life confined to a few-mile radius from our homes.

            We can pursue an entire course of study from our bedrooms. We can figure out how to fix our stuff by watching videos on the internet. We have real-time navigation in the palm of our hands.

            The Anthropocene has made available the possibility of the good life to so many people, in both relative and absolute terms. During the Anthropocene, we have eliminated so many natural challenges to the survival of the human organism that what a person can learn and do, and who they can be is effectively limitless. There is not enough time in a single human life to pursue all the ends worth pursuing made available in the Anthropocene.

            Yet, living through the Anthropocene reveals that the creation of these new ends as part of the good life was pursued at the cost of sharing participation in the good life with others. There are approximately 770 million people globally that lack access to electricity. Another 2 billion people lack access to clean drinking water. More than half of a million people die annually from malaria, a treatable, parasitic disease.

            Many poor countries are already and will continue to bear a disproportionate burden of climate change impacts, while receiving few of its benefits. There are countries at risk of disappearing entirely as a result of sea level rise.

            The Anthropocene, the possibility of a good life with boundless ends worth pursuing, was not only built unjustly, on the basis of denying others that same possibility, it was also built on borrowed time. Natural disasters do not discriminate. The Pacific Northwest heatwave of 2021 killed hundreds. Heatwaves in France have killed tens of thousands. Wildfires kill indiscriminately and expose millions to unhealthy air quality. Major hurricanes can get to be so strong that we might need to revise our hurricane rating system to recognize Category 6 storms.

            We are likely at an inflection point in the endless creation of new ends. For all the joy and excitement that a privileged life in the Anthropocene rightfully brings, there should be significant regret that the way this life was made excluded so many and will prevent it from enduring into future generations.

            This inflection point was not inevitable. Man is not required to pursue any end, not even her natural ends. Our capacity for practical reason allows us to decide whether and how to pursue an end. Choosing to permit a reckless pursuit of self-interest at the cost of others, both contemporary and future, is (and was) a choice. To think that we could only get here through a proprietarian profit motive was (and continues to be) mankind’s fatal flaw. Endorsement of the values that got us here as the means of avoiding this inflection point is (and will be) history’s greatest bluff.

--Amber Polk

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