Canada’s Anthropocene: A Roundtable

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Having contributed posts to a series on “Canada’s Anthropocene,” Alan MacEachernPamela BantingAshlee Cunsolo, and Josh MacFadyen then met virtually for the discussion below. To read the entire series, click here or on each post, below.

Alan MacEachern, The Alanthropocene
Pamela Banting, Suddenly
Ashlee Cunsolo, To Grieve, or Not to Grieve?
Josh MacFadyen, Will it Play in Peoria, Alberta?


Alan: Welcome all, and thank you for your great posts. What has been most striking to me is the variety of ways we came at the theme of Canada and the Anthropocene – which, of course, one would expect, given our varieties of backgrounds and disciplines. I’d like to ask some questions your posts raised. And I may well be accused of focusing too much on the Anthropocene as a concept, rather than on Canada’s experience of it per se. But coming to terms with terms seems crucial, particularly when trying to make a common dialogue between disciplines, and between the academy and the public. One of the things that most impresses me about the Anthropocene idea is the degree to which it has been taken up by visual culture, as well as humanists, as well as scientists.

Ashlee, your post takes as a given, I think, that the Anthropocene means more loss, more grieving. Which got me thinking about shifting baselines, and the difficulty in determining a normal state in a rapidly-changing system. A real fear is that we don’t even know what loss of nature we should be grieving for, because the extinct species died before we ever knew of them, we only ever knew the night-time sky as light-polluted, etc. You talk about “productive grief” – could you say more about what you think grief accomplishes, and what kind of productive acts come from it, that presumably require grief?

Ashlee: I absolutely think the Anthropocene means more loss, which thereby brings more grieving. In fact, I think in many ways the term really came about as a way of identifying an era of loss stemming from the large-scale human impacts at such a rapid rate. This differentiates the Anthropocene from the Holocene, which of course also included centuries of human alteration to ecosystems around the globe. For me, the moniker of the Anthropocene is in many ways a moral/philosophical statement about loss, and about human complicity in this loss. Otherwise, we would continue on with the Holocene label, and not need an additional signifier and modifier for our current time, which encapsulates these type of changes. The Anthropocene brings the recognition that humans are out-pacing the environment now, and this brings loss, and an epoch designed to recognize loss (albeit certainly not explicitly). This idea of loss-driven identity is an interesting one for our current time, as it brings about a lot of emotional, epistemological, and ontological insecurities about who we are, what we have done, where we are going, and how we will live.

Ashlee Cunsolo

Glenn Albrecht, the Australian environmental philosopher and advocate who coined the term “solastalgia,” the distress experienced through change of one’s beloved or home environment, wrote in our recent collection Mourning Nature that the awareness of human culpability at a global scale is also a relatively new experience in the history of human mourning. Many humans now understand that ‘we’ are often the primary agents causing disaster to impinge upon ourselves. Environmental pollution, global warming, bad urban planning, and poor engineering are now major anthropogenic causes of human misery and death. In the Anthropocene, there is no longer mystery attached to a great deal of disaster and misfortune since, to a very large extent, there is an element of self-imposed vulnerability to what are euphemistically called ‘natural disasters.’1

This connects to your reference to shifting baselines, Alan, and to what Pamela writes in her post about narratives continuing from the Holocene in which “we think we can perceive distinct linear events unfolding gradually and episodically, rather than quickly and convergently.” We no longer know what’s normal, as our baselines for what does and doesn’t exist shifts as we lose species and change environments. It is, of course, easier to deny and ignore than to embrace the grief and the pain of the world. But, it isn’t productive, and it leaves us incapacitated and often unable to act.

Living in the Anthropocene, then, is a call to engage with what was or could be lost – with what has come before us, what is currently at risk, and what we know will be lost. Derrida characterizes the work of mourning as starting before death, with the recognition that we will be surviving others, that it’s an ongoing and ever-present condition with which we must grapple. I contend that the Anthropocene is bringing us to this ever-present grappling with more-than-human death, and, as you indicated in your writing, Alan, our own complicity in the deaths of other bodies, and in impacts to our own species. And how do we even begin to think that, and not be debilitated by our own responsibilities? And how do we atone for what we have wrought?

Alan: Great questions, Ashlee. Short answers, please. My own answer has been to point directly into that headwind, and try to teach about the Anthropocene, my own and my nation’s culpability, and my own uncertainty about what to do next. One specific answer related to my post has been to fly less. Not never, but less. One reason I let myself fly is to take my daughter places I’ve been. But in doing so, there’s always a part of me that feels like one of those late-19th century natural history museums, shooting buffalo so they’d have one before it went extinct.

Ashlee: What indeed are the answers? And how do we even know what questions to ask, in order to find a semblance of answers, when the baselines are shifting so quickly? I think this is what causes so much distress/pain/uncertainty/apathy/denial: how does one think about, let alone act in relation to our own culpability? I spend a lot of time wondering if there are other, more effective, ways I could be contributing to a bettering of the planet. Research can be slow. Writing can be slow. Getting funding and collecting data and analyzing data and communicating it can be slow. And in many ways, people’s lived experiences of climate change is outstripping what the research is showing. So what do we do, then, as scholars and researchers, to make broader impacts, but not lose the complexity of the work that needs to be done?

In reference to your question about “productive grief,” I’d say this. Although it is inevitable that we will experience loss throughout our lives, grief is generally something that people want to avoid. Yet there are increasingly people out there understanding the political and ethical power that comes from grief, and how, as Judith Butler writes, mourning “furnishes a sense of political community of a complex order.”2

In this context, then, thinking with grief and mourning can be a form of, what Patricia Rae calls, “resistant mourning,” which can bring people together through pain over what was lost, and the desire to take responsibility to mobilize for change.3 The political potential of mourning and grief can be witnessed through the ways in which previously derealized, and therefore ungrievable, bodies get reconstituted into something public, something mournable, something worthy of our attention, and something vulnerable like ourselves. Grief provides that productive passage across differences to connect in shared understanding and shared vulnerability of loss, whether it is loss of a human body, or a more-than-human body.

Alan: Your description of “resistant mourning” calls to mind the 2017 and 2018 Women’s Marches. One could argue that the 2017 March, while not having any immediate, demonstrable impacts, is having ripples in the culture, such as the #metoo movement and the reported rise of American women planning to run for public office. And yet it’s difficult for me to imagine, in North America at least, a similar scale of political and cultural action arising out of ecological mourning. Do you think I’m wrong about that?

Ashlee: To be honest, I don’t know, but I certainly hope you are! I think we can see some really excellent examples of moments where concerted efforts of mobilizing the power of mourning for political change around human bodies, and I’m hopeful that can happen with environmental loss as well. So, for example, the movement around using public grief to destigmatize those who were passing from AIDS in the early 80s. This reconstitution of the AIDS body as something mournable, worthy of respect, and deserving of the responsibilities of grieving came about due to the activism of countless individuals refusing to grieve silently or privately. The creation of the AIDS quilt is an excellent example of this, as are the plays, writings, films, marches, and public eulogies marking the passing of each individual.

Or consider the Mass Extinction Memorial Observatory (MEMO) in the United Kingdom, which will host carvings of all the plants and animals that have become extinct in modern times. Complete with a bell that on May 22, International Biodiversity Day, will toll for every species lost. The MEMO is attempting to create public support and awareness through grief, and through our shared understanding of our own roles in this loss.

I mention in my post Is This How You Feel?, which allows climate scientists to share their pain in researching in this field day in and day out, not being heard or watching the decline of ecosystems, and feeling powerless. A few years ago I went public about my own struggles with mental health related to being immersed in research and not seeing a positive way forward. I was inundated by emails and calls from researchers and citizens around the globe sharing their own grief stories and struggles in the same vein. I was completely humbled to realize just how many of us are dealing with this type of generalized eco-anxiety – a term utilized by the American Psychological Association in its most recent report, Beyond Storms and Droughts, which examines climate-change-related mental health impacts.

The challenge in connecting with all of these forms of ecological grief is overwhelming people in loss, and not providing the supports or understandings to have this loss not be crippling. I think the “doom and gloom” narrative that has come out of climate change and environmental activism over the past decades has, in many ways, created an unintended consequence of people needing to shut off or get away from the enormity of the challenges that we face. Although I agree with Pam’s comments below that we can’t quite envision or understand the extent of what is happening — and really, how could we do so without getting crushed by it?

So maybe resistant mourning is the ideal for which we aim, and although difficult, and maybe even unattainable, at least we are moving forward to deal collectively with the anxiety and grief and mourning that people are already experiencing. Dealing with ecological grief is already a lived experience for many. So how do we understand this, accept this, support this, and maybe even allow this grief to inform policy and action?

Josh: I’m learning a lot about mourning from this conversation, but I’m also beginning to think it supports a competitor to “complicit” as 2017’s word of the year: SAD! There has even been some solid research that explains why this language was so effective on Twitter last year. We are apparently suckers for anything that sounds like moral outrage, even if it’s presented in just a few dozen characters and all caps. And before anyone declares that those tweets rolled off us like water off a duck’s back, note that the moral-emotional words have a multiplying effect only on those who already share the same political views.

Josh MacFadyen

I believe we need a lot more caution in our writing and policy making, and a good deal of that can come through mourning. As I said in my Peoria post, we need both the mourners and the modelers. And lately the modelers have been drowning out everyone else. The precautionary principle did not do well in the twentieth century. Many of the warnings we received from policy makers (think Eisenhower’s 1961 address on the military-industrial complex) and scientists (think Rachel Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring or Frank Darling’s 1969 Wilderness and Plenty) were simply early predictions of what in hindsight seem like virtually inevitable processes. Major technology firms and government agencies were deeply committed to technological innovations as solutions for social and political problems. The same ethos continued in the twenty-first century, of course: banks were too big to fail, nuclear energy was safe, and pipelines were declared the most ethical way to transport oil.

The precautionary principle states that if a decision or component is untested and has a pretty good chance of destroying other parts of the system then the decision or component should only be used as a last resort. It seems reasonable, and ancient versions of it existed (an ounce of prevention and all that), but it is a surprisingly recent concept in some institutions. The principle did not feature prominently in many levels of public and corporate governance until the 1990s. We need a lot more of it.

Unfortunately, it’s as difficult a concept to sell in planning as in storytelling. Do you remember the cautious James Bond, or the episode of Game of Thrones where Arya Stark uses the precautionary principle? Me neither. However, the fragility and interconnectedness of ecosystems that we see in environmental history and other humanities are an important way to tell this story. We need more. Mourning the losses in our Earth system is appropriate and helpful, and connecting to them in the real world is a unique part of what we do in the environmental humanities. Let’s also focus on the models and methods that are available to us, as we try to understand the changing world. As Elon Musk said recently, “I’m not trying to be anyone’s savior, I’m just trying to think about the future and not be sad.”4

Following on Ashlee’s and Alan’s comments on “resistant mourning”: is there such as thing as “receptive mourning?” What do we do with change that is sad, but ultimately best? The rest of Elon Musk’s talk reveals that he’s motivated by his emotional response to the decline of space travel technology since the Apollo program. He even compares it to lost technologies like Roman aqueducts and Egyptian pyramids. The space race was a powerful motivator, but this mourning seems a little misplaced. Obviously, our knowledge base has grown immensely since 1969; it has simply shifted from space travel to areas with more immediate utility and interest.

Another example is closer to my own research, and more relevant to Peoria. A lot of people are really sad about the social-ecological transition from agrarian to industrial societies. This is the transition that Alan describes and encourages us to study, and I mention it as well in terms of changing food systems. There aren’t many people who celebrate this process of rural out-migration, and in fact great efforts have been spent in the last 150 years or so to stem or reverse it. From E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful to the 2017 State of Food and Agriculture by the FAO, many writers bemoan the trend of rural out-migration. The emotion captured in the 1934 photo of Abram Fehr’s family in Edmonton, or countless victims of the Dust Bowl, is palpable. Even today, the emotion goes beyond mourning, and the transition has contributed to mental health crises in some countries. However, cities aren’t all that bad, and for many of us the transition has been a good one. Moreover, a sustained and controlled depopulation of some of these areas may be more sustainable for nature, food systems, and human societies in general in the long run.5 How do we deal with the emotions that often come with this change?

Ashlee: Josh, I really like both here and in your article where you talk about both “the mourners and the modelers” and that the “modelers have been drowning out the rest.” This is such an important point, as that (attempt at) separation of emotion from science has, in many ways, created this space of dispassion in climate change science. So much of policymaking is focused on technocratic approaches to “fixing” things, and forgetting about the mental stresses and emotional impacts, including grief.

Your comment about “receptive mourning” is really insightful and important. It’s the acceptance of the reality of ongoing loss, and loss that may not have an end. And it’s understanding that the associated grief may have the ability to bring about unifying potentials. The Elon Musk quote you cite really resonates for me. How do we think, in the Anthropocene and with the Anthropocene, about a future that is more than doom and gloom, death and destruction? And how might we do that as both a form of resistance and receptivity?

Pamela Banting

Pamela: Alan, in your essay on “The Alanthropocene” you explore your own complicity in the current state of affairs, and I admire how you went to the trouble to calculate the weight of your own air travel. Clearly, without going through a process of coming to an awareness of how our own choices and actions add to the problem and without understanding the infrastructure of the Anthropocene we cannot make the kind of dramatic changes that are necessary. But at the same time do you feel that the discourse around personal complicity is fraught in complex ways? For one thing, complicity seems in Western thought to immediately invoke questions of guilt and by contrast innocence, and to some extent that paradigm can be disabling. Just as mourning is an emotion people tend to want to evade, so too we do not relish guilty feelings and often try to argue, explain, deny, or squirm our way out of the position of the guilty party. Or we agree that we ourselves are guilty but not as guilty as the next person. Are there ways in which you conceive of acknowledging complicity as avoiding that binary of good vs. bad, pure vs. tainted, innocent vs. guilty, self vs. other, and all the old baggage of those binaries? How do you as a historian view the notion of complicity in relation to the Alanthropocene?

Alan: These question really get at something that’s been on my mind, Pamela. As environmental scholars, to what degree is it enough to be right – which is difficult enough – or must our work also have direct impact, by guiding people to change behaviour? (It’s true that environmental scholarship must be true, but it’s also helpful if it’s helpful.)

Because these days, a guiding assumption seems to be that to have impact, environmental scholarship should find its way to being hopeful, optimistic. And I respect those who honestly have that worldview and express it in their writing: I’m thinking right now of J.R. McNeill, who memorably frames our world’s twentieth century strategy of building a highly-specialized fossil fuel-based civilization as an “interesting gamble.”6 For an environmental historian, that’s practically Panglossian!

I am also quite ready to accept, in the spirit of the optimists Josh cites in his post, that 2017 was by many indicators the best year in human history. I just don’t see much evidence that this Anthropocene civilization is sustainable. I don’t even think the term “sustainable” is sustainable. There are good reasons to be concerned that people alive today won’t continue to enjoy the living conditions of today. So I’m a pessimist, which means most people will change the channel. The best I can do in defining my subject position is to model Van Halen, which became famous for being the metal band that smiled; I’ll be the pessimist who smiles.

To answer your question more directly, I’ll admit that maybe writing about my complicity – and, by extension, encouraging others to consider theirs – is going to be just too discouraging for people. That’s how I start the piece, by noting that people would rather talk about others’ complicity than imagine their own. But an attraction of the Anthropocene concept is its temporal, historical nature. Rather than gauging our environmental impact by looking at the person to the left and the right of us, we can compare ourselves with people, mostly now dead, who had indisputably less impact on the planet than the people on the planet today. I think that’s a good starting point for thinking about where we are today, and why we need things to change.

Maybe I’ll take this moment to ask you a question in return, Pamela. At one point in your post you reference the Anthropocene, “if there is going to be one,” and then later say there are two non-concurrent Anthropocenes now underway – including one that Indigenous people have been living in for four-plus centuries. Could you clarify? Do you think we are in the Anthropocene?

Pamela:  Yes, we certainly are. The waver you are sensing is in the language, the pronoun, the voice, not in my own conviction as to the fact or the temporal horizon of the Anthropocene. When I write that “It is as if we Canadians have individually and collectively decided that the Anthropocene, if there is going to be one, will proceed only through long, gradual, barely perceptible change over many generations,” I am attempting to voice what I see as the point of view of many Canadians, those who are at least somewhat aware of the science of climate change, for instance, and quite concerned about its ramifications but who are also more or less content to remain in a state of mild anticipation until someone – government, corporations, another nation, a charismatic leader – makes a big move. In saying “if there is going to be one” I am attempting to encapsulate the seemingly widespread, albeit implicit, notion that we can somehow concede or not concede to climate change at a discursive level, and that refusing to concede (in words and/or actions) would have some real-world positive effect and reverse the problem. To be fair, this may be because industry apologists have positioned the issue as a matter for debate. But it is essentially magical thinking.

Secondly, even though I have been reading and writing about climate change and the Anthropocene for many years and am wholly convinced that we have a very small time horizon (scientists are now saying that we have until about 2020 with respect to our carbon budget) in which to alter our ideology, ethics, practices, infrastructure, and whole way of life to either avert the worst disasters or to develop ways of living that can better absorb the coming shocks, I blend I merge my voice with those of to the group of “we other Canadians.” I guess it is a gesture akin to your essay, Alan, in which you explore the idea of complicity and responsibility (the Pamelanthropocene?).

I read somewhere recently that even many highly committed environmentalists probably cannot quite envision the extent or imminence of the problem, and I would count myself as part of that constituency. Despite the knowledge I have acquired, anxiety and empathy I feel for those who have lost their homes to wildfires or floods, and the efforts I make in my teaching and research and home life, I cannot claim to be exemplary or to be doing enough, and I do not want to write as if I position myself entirely beyond this stance. Yesterday in week two of my “Canada in the Anthropocene” course, I had put some of Edward Burtynsky’s photographs from his Oil Series on the screen as background to our discussion about our orientation to waste, and one of the students noted that if he had to quit driving and owning a phone, he would not even feel like himself. I think the entire class was grateful for his self-perception and honesty in daring to articulate the problem so clearly. A student in a previous course stated that he was convinced by the science and by the literary texts we were reading but “I would not want to give up my lifestyle.” The idea that we have the option and the agency to retain our lifestyles and what underwrites those lifestyles is one we need to open up for public discussion.

I see the Anthropocene as being underway, going on beneath the notice of non-native people for more than four centuries. What does that say about our ability to attend either to the environment in which (and off of which) we have been living all this time or to the people who have lived here for generations and have had sound advice for us all along? We need to tune our noticing and listening skills. Maybe we non-native people need to view ourselves not as “mainstream” Canadians but as apprentice Canadians.

It is crucial to remember, too, that the Anthropocene is not only affecting human persons: over the past 40 years, 50% of the earth’s wildlife populations have died out due to various causes including lost habitats, pollution, temperature increases, etc.

It is unfortunate that so much of the public and social media debate around climate change and the necessity of scaling back our fossil fuel expenditures forecasts only negative scenarios such as the spectre of contemporary, digital people forcibly returning to living like their grandparents or great-grandparents, manually pumping our water, growing big gardens, and preserving endless jars of fruit and vegetables, doing without, and having to, as the saying used to go, “make our own fun.” We have many major and painful challenges ahead of us, spurred in part, as Ashlee writes, by ecological mourning, but if we could just get started rethinking our systems and working together on all fronts I think we would be surprised to discover how enriching it would be collectively to dream up ways of working with rather than against nature.

For example, if instead of planning to construct a multi-million dollar dry dam just west of Calgary to act as a giant containment pond to prevent future flooding of the city, we decided to follow the considered advice of Kevin Van Tighem and ban clearcut logging in the headwaters so the land could absorb and retain more moisture. If we decided to release beavers into the area and let them draw on their own hydrological expertise and instead of a concrete dry dam build much smaller and more widely distributed dams that would also slow the release of spring and summer runoff. How Canadian of a solution is that! Many of the proposed practical solutions and mitigations and the planning thereof sound intriguing to me, and yet there is resistance from so many quarters.

Maybe what I am suggesting here risks putting a positive and contradictory spin on my own sense of how very precarious the situation really is. Or maybe it is just because my dad was so engaged in our local community when I was a child that I view local, community-level initiatives as demanding yet attractive activities. Or maybe it is because even as I view my research and teaching on the Anthropocene as a small but real contribution to the general effort, I do not think it is enough, and in fact I find the constricted notion of community in academia limiting and insufficient. By contrast, I very much admire the work Ashlee has been doing in the communities of Labrador.

Ashlee: I appreciate that, Pamela. We have much to learn from those on the frontlines, like the Inuit communities in Labrador and across the Circumpolar North who have been identifying environmental changes for decades. We know that much of the burden of these changes are felt first and foremost by those who rely most closely on the land for livelihoods, culture, and wellbeing. I think your point about why haven’t we been attending to the environment or to those who have lived there for generations is also apt. When people in Nunatsiavut first began sharing their ecological grief with me, I kept wondering why such experiences weren’t more present in discourse and writings on climate change. One conversation with a Nunatsiavut community leader on this issue really struck me. Essentially, the individual felt this type of grief wasn’t getting much public attention because those who were at the frontlines of ecological grief – and climate change – were typically those most silenced or marginalized in climate change dialogues or policies.

Things are shifting, though. Over the past five years I have noticed more people sharing their ecological grief, or showing more interest in and awareness of this expression of grief. And there is a shift in global policy documents, such as the Paris Agreement’s addition of a third policy pillar beyond “mitigation” and “adaptation,” to include “loss and damage.”[7] We are better taking into account the losses experienced through global climate shifts, including intangible losses to culture, ways of knowing, livelihoods, generational knowledge, mental and emotional wellbeing, etc. We are seeing an opening in policy to account for – or testify to – the myriad other climate-change-related impacts, including ecological grief, solastalgia, and psycho-social outcomes.

Alan MacEachern

Alan: So far in this discussion we’ve been using the concept of the Anthropocene relatively uncritically. I talked recently with a senior environmental scholar who felt that any talk of the Anthropocene was a bad move for humanists, for two distinct reasons. First, it simultaneously overstates the degree to which the natural world has been humanized and understates the degree to which it is still overwhelmingly natural. (Yes, the oceans are warmer, higher, and more acidic, but they are still two-thirds of the planet without a single human living in them.) Second, it means humanists have to wait around for geologists to decide whether to approve the term or not! And if they don’t, how can we pretend that it has explanatory value? I obviously don’t agree with this scholar. Even if geology does not adopt the Anthropocene as a new geological epoch, the term still resonates because it suggests the imagined future geologist, 50,000 years from now, finding distinct traces of our present-day civilization in the stratigraphic layer by virtue of plastics, radionuclides, chicken bones, concrete, and the like.

From the title of your post forward, Josh, you suggest that the Anthropocene concept, even if it is appropriate, doesn’t resonate with people, won’t play in Peoria(s). I admit: I would give greater credence to your argument if you didn’t seem to want to replace it with “telecoupling,” a term I find simultaneously opaque and suggestive. (I mean, I could refer to chatting on a couch as sectional intercourse, but that doesn’t mean I should.) Could you explain a little more why you find the concept of telecoupling so meaningful/helpful?

Josh: Ha! The quick answer is that telecoupling isn’t meant to replace the Anthropocene but rather measure (and model) one aspect of land use change within it. I’m not even saying I use the model with any great success, but I do think it’s interesting that interdisciplinary groups like sustainability scientists are giving the concept serious attention.

You asked at the beginning whether the Anthropocene was inevitable. I like that question because it’s obviously impossible to answer definitively. In one sense, the stratigraphic sense, the Anthropocene is inevitable because it has already begun. The markers are already deposited, and the deposits are already marked. The golden spike has already been driven. With that said, I will take a different approach and say that the most severe predictions are (probably) not inevitable. There are several reasons. First and foremost, if for the first time in history humans really are at the helm, then we know those little scamps are notoriously difficult to predict. We could still develop a collective conscience and reverse course. Second, as your senior scholar suggests, there are still many forces, natural and cultural, beyond our control that could limit our ability to proceed toward some of the severe outcomes. History tells us that many aspects of our social-ecological systems are predictable, but it also tells us to expect stochastic, non-linear changes. Recent history reminds that the most imminent threat to human life as we know it is not runaway climate change (not yet), but rather nuclear conflict, be it intentional or accidental. Other threats are closer to the natural end of the spectrum, including, as Pamela points out global pandemics or superbugs.

Finally, there are the “unknown unknowns,” including the possibility of inflection points in human development that we cannot see beyond. In math these were dubbed singularities, or points at which normal rules no longer apply. Computer scientists and other writers began applying this concept to artificial intelligence, and indeed there are likely types and rates of innovation that obfuscate all of the models. When we look to the future we can make many predictions and control for many of the error margins, but we cannot predict what something like artificial intelligence would produce. We can’t even predict what a new form of science and technology would yield that makes the jump from our typical incremental innovation to a much faster or a systems-based innovation. In this sense, maybe the Great Acceleration / Big Ratchet was not just a sudden regime shift that resembled, in orders of magnitude, the ones that came before. Maybe the Acceleration / Ratchet was itself a singularity. If it was, there is no reason to think it will be followed by a hatchet, or at least not the kind we’ve seen in the past. In this case it’s likely that many of the rules no longer apply.

From the environmental humanist’s perspective, we can’t do much about any of these forces, except perhaps the first one. We can, however, help establish the way humans will evaluate each one of them. Speaking to a large group of scientists and scholars in June 1955, Lewis Mumford argued “What will happen to this earth depends very largely upon man’s capacities as a dramatist and a creative artist, and that in turn depends in no slight measure upon the estimate he forms of himself.” The appeal to the arts and humanities came during his closing address to the large multi-disciplinary conference, so appropriately named, Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth. It was the 1950s version of the Anthropocene, and a very early model indeed. Mumford’s invocation was, unfortunately, drowned out by the deafening voices of the optimists. As he argued later in his address,

Too much of our discussion here, I am afraid, has dealt with proposals for man’s exercising control over nature without reference to the kind of control he must exercise over himself. But, plainly, the greater the quantity of energy at man’s disposal, the more important becomes the old Roman question: Quis custodiet custodies? which may be loosely translated as: “Who is to control the controller?”8

Thirteen years later, the Whole Earth Catalog opened with a similar argument  – and less romantic language  – “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” As the postwar optimists gathered and debated the emerging fields of ecology, atomic energy, and computer science, it was easy to lose sight of our humanity. Like Mumford’s call to creativity and the arts in the early days of the Great Acceleration, I think this discussion of Canada’s Anthropocene concludes that humanists must help advance an estimate of ourselves, and other species, that is compassionate and just, with well-being for all.

Pamela: I am so appreciative of this opportunity to be in dialogue with three other academics with deep roots in and ongoing connections to rural places and peoples. I have long felt that the discourse pertaining to climate change and the Anthropocene more generally has almost completely bracketed off the rural. That is, there appears to be a lot of concern and targeted research directed toward, for example, “Smart Cities,” but I have not yet noticed scholarly initiatives directed toward “Smart Small Towns,” “Smart Reserves,” or “Smart Treaty Lands.” At the institutional level the old split between urban vs. “hinterland” seems as strong as ever, even at a time when we need to start radically rethinking those constructs and that boundary line and working toward better integration between food producers and consumers, particularly within a local and regional context, and even as we need to implement measures to contain urban sprawl in order to preserve agricultural land.

After an interval of at least twenty years, over Christmas I re-read Martha Ostenso’s classic 1925 prairie novel Wild Geese in which the antagonist, Caleb Gare, a pioneer farmer in Manitoba’s Interlake region, subjects his own wife and children to terrible abuse in the name of growing “his” crops, including a bumper flax crop that he imagines will make him the most prosperous and envied farmer in the district. The novel – a real page-turner, in part because of the moral outrage it provokes – is a stark reminder of the worst aspects of historical settlement agriculture. Nature, land, women, and children are all subjugated in the name of Caleb’s desire to dominate the community. (It’s worth noting that, given the era, Caleb would have been an organic farmer!) Reading the novel again in light of what we now know about the Anthropocene points to the necessity to rethink virtually everything including patriarchy and gender, capitalist exploitation of land, sense of place, the meaning of home, wildfire, the dualities of the city vs. the country, manual vs. other kinds of labour, etc.

I think this is why over the past few years we have seen an outpouring of glossaries for the Anthropocene, such as Environmental Humanities Journal’s Living Lexicon (online), Fueling Culture: 101 Words for Energy and Environment, and Veer Ecology: A Companion for Environmental Thinking. Ashlee’s thorough rethinking of the notion of grief, for example, which we normally associate with a state of abject paralysis due to emotional trauma, as the basis for a renewed relationship with the land and as the impetus for resisting the processes that portend even further degradation. Alan’s torquing of the idea of complicity away from denial and toward a more mature sense of self in the world. Josh’s reminder that we need to attend to the marriage of the modelers and the mourners, or the city mouse and the country mouse, as that labour is traditionally divided.

Epistemic change is frustratingly slow, but one thing print-oriented academics like me can forget is that practices other than reading can also lead epistemic change, not only for the worse but for the better. While not everyone in Peoria has access to or adequate time to read articles about climate change (and the same could be said for many people in major cities), and rural places can be bastions of political conservatism (so too is Calgary), changing our methods and practices can also contribute to changing our attitudes, values, ethics, and epistemic structures.

Feature Image: Diana Thorneycroft, Early Snow with Bob & Doug, 2005,


[1] Glenn Albrecht, “Solastalgia and the New Mourning,” in A. Cunsolo and K. Landman, eds., Mourning Nature: Hope at the Heart of Ecological Loss and Grief (2017), 296.

[2] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Power of Mourning and Violence (2004), 22.

[3] Patricia Rae, ed., Modernism and Mourning (2007).

[4] Elon Musk, “The Future We’re Building – and Boring,” TED Talk (April 2017).

[5] Not all rural areas need to have the same Anthropocene experience. Some research has shown that rapid human depopulation can have negative effects on ecosystems and ecosystems services, especially when it is accompanied by rapid agricultural industrialization.

[6] J.R. McNeill, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (2000), xxiii.

[7] See Kathleen Mogelgaard and Heather McCray, “When Adaptation is Not Enough: Paris Agreement Recognizes ‘Loss and Damage,” World Resources Institute (24 December 2015); and text of the Paris Agreement (2015).

[8] Lewis Mumford, “Prospect,” in William L. Thomas, ed. Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth, proceedings (1955).

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I am the author of Becoming Green Gables (spring 2024), The Summer Trade (with Edward MacDonald, 2022), & The Miramichi Fire (2020), & the editor of the print/open-access Canadian History & Environment series at University of Calgary Press. I was Director of NiCHE, 2004-15. Contact me at


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