The Anthropocene

We are living in the Anthropocene era, the age of the Earth in which human civilization is changing the very condition of the planet through the impact of its socio-technological practices on the land, the sea, and the atmosphere.

The term 'Anthropocene' was coined by geologists Paul Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer in 2000. According to their reckoning the Anthropocene era began in the late 18th century, because “during the past two centuries, the global effects of human activities have become clearly noticeable. This is the period when data retrieved from glacial ice cores show the beginning of a growth in the atmospheric concentrations of several 'greenhouse gases", in particular C02 and CH4. Such a starting date also coincides with James Watt's invention of the steam engine in 1784” (2000, 17-18).[i] William Ruddiman has argued that human beings became the dominate influence on the earth's atmosphere long before the Industrial Revolution. According to his reckoning, the Anthropocene began with the Agricultural Revolution approximately 10,000 years ago when humans began clearing land for agriculture and causing deforestation. It is also the first time at which humans began domesticating wild grains and animal species, and breeding these species so as to select variants that better fit human needs.

While hominids have been evolving for millions of years, modern human beings like us, that is, homo sapiens (wise humans), have only been around for about 200,000 years. During most of our evolutionary history we lived as hunter-gatherers in small nomadic clans, and we had little impact on the ecology of the Earth. But due to our talent for technological innovation we have moved rapidly from the Stone Age to the Neolithic era (New Stone Age, circa 8500 BC) in which farming began in the Levant, to the use of metal tools in Copper, Bronze and Iron ages, and then in the 1750s onto the Industrial Revolution. While humans have been altering their natural environment in significant ways for about 10,000 years through farming and the domestication of wild plants and animals, only in the last several centuries has the scale and scope of our activities begun to pose a threat to our survival as a species.

In the twentieth century we acquired the capacity to destroy the Earth many times over with our nuclear weapons; with the advent of genetic engineering we have now learned how to alter life itself at the genetic level; and our current fossil-fuel dependent modes of industry and commerce are disrupting the atmosphere by pumping greenhouse gases into at an ever-increasing rate, risking major climate disruption.

In each of the earlier periods in which technological changes have made it possible for humans to alter their environments human cultures have adapted their ethics to the new kinds of social realities that their increasingly technological modes of living created. It was Karl Marx who proposed the general thesis that the technological base of society embodied in its dominant modes of production determines its cultural superstructure, including its dominant ethical outlook: “The handmill gives you society with feudal lords; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist;” and Peter Singer has suggested adding, “The jet plane, the telephone, and the Internet give you a global society with the transnational corporation and the World Economic Forum” (Singer 2002, 10).

In the Anthropocene epoch the technologies of globalization are creating new kinds of social relations and new kinds of interdependence among peoples, and also new kinds of global threats. Consequently, we must revise our ethics in order to adapt them to the conditions of a planetary civilization in which human action is the most significant force in shaping the future of the Earth.

Philosophers have long believed that ethics, the theories we have of moral goodness, duty, rightness, and virtue, cannot be directly derived from any set facts about human nature. To attempt to derive moral judgments directly on facts concerning natural human characteristics and dispositions is to commit the "naturalistic fallacy." However, in recent years there has also been a recognition that ethical theories should be developed in some sense empirically, within the context of our best current biological, anthropological, sociological, and psychological theories. In ethics we must alter our received ethical theories in order to better take account of our characteristics as natural and as social beings.

Traditional ethics has tended to abstract from the historical conditions of human existence, and has tried to frame theories which apply to all "rational beings." In doing so moral philosophers have sacrificed specificity to the existing human condition. We have failed, by and large, to take into account features of morality which vary according to the stages of the life cycle and have made exceptions of children, the sick, the mentally incapable, and the elderly. Through this abstraction we have made it appear that human beings pop into the world fully capable with a functional capacity for rational decision‑making and fully in command of their faculties and behavior. We have ignored the obvious fact that human beings come into the world in a state of utter dependency and vulnerability, that they attain maturity embedded within a network of interpersonal relationships involving parents, families, friends, teachers, and significant others, and that these relationship condition our existence as moral agents in fundamental ways.

We have also ignored the fact that human beings are related by history to their distant ancestors and to their future progeny, by commonalities of development within their communities and cultures, and that these networks of social relationships must be taken into account in our ethics. Above all, traditional ethics has been anthropocentric: we have regarded humans as separate from nature, and as the only parts of nature which have moral value and moral standing, and so have treated other species of living beings, as mere "things." While a preference for our own kind is perhaps predictable and in some sense natural for us, it cannot be defended on these grounds.

This book is an attempt to correct for these biases of traditional ethical theory. A naturalized ethics is one that takes seriously the idea that humans are natural biological beings who bear special moral relationships to other persons and to other members of the biological world. My approach to global ethics is also secular and nonconsequentialist but draws elements from various other ethical traditions.

I am not particularly interested in arguing against some other approaches that have attempted to develop a global ethics by reinterpreting traditional religious doctrines or applying utilitarian theory. My approach to global ethics is pluralistic, but draws heavily on the work of philosophers such as Hans Jonas (1984) The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Robert E. Goodin (1985). Protecting the Vulnerable: A Reanalysis of Our Social Responsibilities. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; and Virginia Held (2006). The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political, Global. New York: Oxford University Press, each of whom have developed ethical theories based on the conceptions of responsibility, vulnerability, and care, notions that I believe are particularly well-suited to addressing the global problems we are facing.

My approach to developing a global ethics also builds upon the existence of the contemporary human rights paradigm, which is, in my view, the closest thing we currently have to the kind of global ethics that I envision. Both the responsibility-based approach and the rights-based approaches to ethical theory are going to be needed in order to construct a comprehensive global ethics, and my specific object here is to integrate them by means of an unorthodox theory of human rights that derives them from social responsibilities.

[i] (See William F. Ruddiman. (2007) Plows, Plagues, and Petroleum: How Humans Took Control of Climate. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press. My own preference would be to place the beginning of the Anthropocene Era around 1968 when the Apollo 8 spacecraft sent back the now iconic image of the Earth rising above the surface of the moon. This date is also close to the first time a human being set foot on the moon, July 20, 1969, and the first Earth Day held on April 22, 1970. I prefer this date because it marks the beginning of "conscious evolution" -- the point at which humans realized that we are responsible for the future evolution of life on Earth.

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