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Tagged with generation anthropocene

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We can’t solve our environmental problems without business

Andy Hoffman.

“If business isn’t developing solutions to our sustainability issues, they won’t be developed,” says Andy Hoffman. "If business is not part of the solution, there will be no solution.”

Hoffman is director of the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan. “The reality is that the most powerful institution in the world is business,” he says -- and he’s optimistic that business has the capability to make a huge difference in helping to solve pressing environmental problems.

Hoffman is also interested in how culture and social institutions affect our views on environmental issues. In the U.S., he says, we’ve reached a scientific consensus on climate change, but we still lack a social consensus. In order to achieve a social consensus, Hoffman believes we need to shift discussions of climate change away from the political arena and frame the issue in other ways -- for example, as an issue of social equity. In order to achieve this, we need to find credible spokespeople representing diverse interests within our society.

In this interview, Hoffman and I chat about the role of business in the environmental movement, the cultural challenges posed by climate change, and “light green” organizations versus “dark greens.” Bonus for you Mad Men lovers: We also talk about a picnic scene on the show that demonstrates how culture can change our relationship to the environment.

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Crowd control: 7 billion people. One last chance to save the planet

Paul Ehrlich.

Paul Ehrlich, author of the iconic 1968 book The Population Bomb, now refers to himself as a “mobster.” Okay, so the Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere -- the MAHB -- is not exactly an organized crime group, but Ehrlich is still raising some ethical eyebrows. After warning of impending global catastrophe for over 40 years, he and his MAHB are bringing together humanists, social scientists, ecologists, and economists to figure out how we might convince people to quickly change course.

The trouble, Ehrlich says, is in our genes. One hundred thousand years ago, when our greatest obstacles were wild animals, food foraging, and “ducking rocks thrown at our heads,” it wasn’t necessary to grapple with huge, hard-to-discern disasters like biodiversity loss or climate change. Alas, our brains aren’t yet up to speed with these fast times. As Ehrlich says, we’ve got “stone age brains with space age technology.”

What’s to be done? Having written over 40 books, Ehrlich posits that “people don’t want to hear about solutions -- those books don’t sell.” And he’s long since given up on any attempt to counter “genuine idiots” or “the mathematically challenged.” Ultimately, though, he’s a people person -- he thinks that, with the right incentives, we can be retrained.

Read more: Population

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Are our 15 seconds of fame up, geologically speaking?

Photo by Krissy Venosdale.

Four and a half billion years is a hard number to digest. That’s the age of the Earth, and a lot has happened in that time. The geologic record contains dramatic climate swings, the formation of entire continents, the proliferation of new species -- as well as mass extinctions. But no matter what has happened in the past, life goes on. Well, in the case of mass extinctions, at least some life does ...

To help people get their heads around our role in all this, geologists use the analogy of a clock: If you compress all of the Earth's history into a single day, humans do not show up on the scene until a minute before midnight.

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Animal instincts: Can we harness human nature to do good for the world?

Human ecologist Bill Durham. (Photo by Claire Menke.)

As a budding ecologist, I often struggle with the Yeti-sized carbon footprint I create when traveling to faraway field sites. Research in Hawaii last summer entailed a three-hour car ride to the airport, a six-hour flight to Honolulu, a 45-minute flight to Hilo, and then half-hour car rides twice daily from our base site in town to our field site in the highlands. I always return from these trips feeling reinvigorated as an environmentalist, but I know my new knowledge and passion come at a cost.

Like it or not, travel has hidden environmental price tags. Some green-minded individuals have sworn off plane travel or confined themselves to an area reachable by bike. But for one longtime thinker on these topics, there is no contradiction between the terms “eco” and “tourism.”

Bill Durham, a professor of human biology at Stanford University, believes sustainable, well-managed ecotourism may just be an important part of the solution. Travel, he says, is in our genes: “Humans are curious primates.” We’re predisposed to wander. The question then becomes, how do we channel this human nature to do good for the planet, not just damage?

Experiential, place-based learning can foster an environmental ethic, Durham says, helping drive the long-term behavioral shifts needed to confront the Anthropocene. Visiting places like the Galapagos Archipelago or Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula -- where Durham spends much of his time as a researcher -- can reveal the fundamental evolutionary ties that connect humans to nature.

I spoke with Durham recently about topics ranging from ecotourism to experiential learning to the challenge of promoting conservation in a country where many people don’t even believe in evolution. Along the way, this truly interdisciplinary thinker provided some hope for a budding environmentalist struggling to understand everything from her role in the green movement to the impact of her next journey.


Free MP3. (Right click, select “Save Link As.”)

This interview is part of the Generation Anthropocene project, in which Stanford students partake in an inter-generational dialogue with scholars about living in an age when humans have become a major force shaping our world.

Read more: Animals

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The 9 billion-person question: What kind of cities will we build?

Jon Christensen.

A lone rider spurs his horse as he gallops across the desolate plains. An explorer heads into the Sierras, the cathedrals of the wild. These are the classic images of the frontier and the romantic heroes who pushed into the wilderness to build the American West.

They are also relics of a time when we could imagine that the human and natural worlds were separate. “It’s as if the idea of the frontier kept open the illusion that there was more nature out there that was as yet unaffected by human beings,” says environmental historian Jon Christensen, executive director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford University. "That really never did exist."

“We now see, in the Anthropocene, that even the wilderness is a product of human forces and is very much shaped by human ideas,” Christensen says. “The city is also full of nature.”

Read more: Cities

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Survivor, endangered species edition: We decide who lives and dies

During World War I, French doctors working on the battlefield were often presented with far more wounded soldiers than they had the time or resources to care for. Faced with the stark reality that they would lose patients no matter what they did, these doctors came up with a system of “triage,” letting the most critically wounded die so as to save the most lives.

The time may have come for us to use a similar triage system to save species, according to Terry Root, a Stanford biologist who, along with her fellow authors with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, won a 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. “If you had told me even five years ago that I would be saying we need to deal with triage, I would tell you you were crazy,” Root says. “But … you can’t save everything.”

Read more: Animals

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Stanford nutrition guru on how to change our food system (without giving up pizza)

Christopher Gardner. (Photo by Miles Traer.)

When you think about a professor at Stanford University’s prestigious School of Medicine, a laid-back dude wearing a tie-dyed shirt and socks with sandals probably isn’t the first image that comes to mind. But professor Christopher Gardner rocks his California casual. At Stanford, he conducts research on diet and nutrition in the med school, and teaches a wildly popular class on food and society. All this, while defying traditional sandal-wearing conventions.

Gardner is refreshingly down-to-earth, and optimistic about the sustainable food movement. And he practices what he teaches -- he grows his own vegetables in a backyard garden, and also recently acquired five laying hens. He champions sustainable food on campus, and spearheaded the Stanford Food Summit in 2010, an annual event that brings together professors, students, and community-based food groups and organizations in a lively forum about food systems issues. Last summer, he also helped to organize a summer camp at Full Circle Farm in Sunnyvale, Calif., where kids learned about vegetables. And then they cooked and ate them. And liked them.

I caught up with Gardner recently to talk about the modern food movement, where it’s headed, and the incredible variety of reasons that sustainable food is an issue that hooks people. We also chatted about effective sustainable food writing, chickens expressing their chicken-ness, reincarnating home ec, and a single, glorious, blazing act of rebellion done through eating … pizza.

Read more: Food

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Ecology of the undead: Life and death in the age of mass extinction

Rodolfo Dirzo. (Photo by Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service.)

If you think all ecologists are focused on the gloom and doom of climate change, think again. Some of them have even bigger things on their minds.

“I think that, given time and political will and political savviness, we might be able to fix the climate change situation,” says Rodolfo Dirzo, the Bing Professor in Ecology at Stanford University, where he also serves as the director of the Center for Latin American Studies. “But biological extinction is not a reversible thing. To me -- and I know that this might be controversial -- I think that biological extinction is the most dramatic global environmental change that characterizes the Anthropocene.”

I met Dirzo while preparing for my first class at Stanford: Field Ecology and Conservation. We were organizing the materials for experiments that we would be performing in Los Tuxtlas Biosphere Reserve, the northernmost tropical rainforest in the Americas, located in Veracruz, Mexico. Dirzo, many years prior to his arrival at Stanford, was the director of research at the reserve. His observations there have led him to study not only the effects of deforestation, but his new line of thinking around “defaunation,” or how the loss of medium and large animals have restructures the forest understory, and ultimately shape a whole tropical ecosystem.

“Go to Los Tuxtlas and you walk in this amazing forest -- it looks so lush and green and exuberant,” he says. “We don’t really see what is happening to the animals, unless you begin to really carefully start monitoring.”

In this interview, we talk about the rise of "rodentation," the ecological version of “the living dead,” and the ethical implications of wiping out the results of 3.5 billion years of evolution.



Free MP3. (Right click, select "Save Link As.")

This interview is part of the Generation Anthropocene project, in which Stanford students partake in an inter-generational dialogue with scholars about living in an age when humans have become a major force shaping our world.

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Re-Whiting history: Richard White on managing our un-pristine planet

Richard White. (Photo by Jesse White.)

You know the feeling: the intoxicatingly fresh air, the crunch of leaves under your hiking boots, and only the chirps, gurgles, and caws of the forest to keep you company as you wander down the trail. Ah, to be free of people and surrounded by untouched nature …

Environmental historian Richard White will stop you right there. This contrast between a hike in the woods and a walk down the city streets, between Yosemite and your office cubicle, is not one of nature versus non-nature. People have lived in, worked in, and even burned these landscapes throughout history, White says, and the idea of pristine wilderness that is “untrammeled by man” -- or so goes the Wilderness Act -- is a myth. “Particularly with climate change,” he says, “we have now touched everything except maybe some of the deepest parts of the ocean.”

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Generation Anthropocene: Students grapple with our global impact

Geologists are not particularly renowned for their conversational skills. They tend to be a hairy bunch of beer-drinking nerds who are probably the only people on the planet that still prefer Tevas to Chacos. But every now and then the earth sciences offer up an idea that reverberates and captures our attention.

Witness Charles Darwin. You may think of Darwin as a biologist, because he gave us an appreciation of the spectacular biodiversity of the planet. Geologists, however, claim his as their own: For evolution to work, you need a WHOLE lot of time. Darwin understood this. He’d studied geology.

More recently -- in the last couple of years, to be exact -- geologists have brought us another show-stopping concept. They call it the Anthropocene. Literally, anthropocene means “the age of humans.” We humans, the thinking goes, are a geologic event like asteroid impact or the end of an ice age.

At first this sounds like a joke. When you look at it through the long lens of earth history, our occurrence appears as an insignificant blip. We’re the last second on a 24-hour clock, the last inch before the end-zone on a football field. We’re nothing. We’re tiny. We’re a fraction of a percent, an evolutionary remainder.

But, if you think about it, there are, in fact, some very good reasons to think that we’ve created a new geologic age. We’ve certainly changed the terms of life. We killed off the woolly mammoth and the dodos, shipped pythons from Burma to Florida, and created breeding grounds for rats, raccoons, pigeons, and other urban-loving creatures. Throw climate change and ocean acidification into the mix, and it’s easy to make a case that our influence surges from continental to global. Even if a virus wipes us all out tomorrow, our impacts on the planet will be felt for a long time to come.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living