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The Anthropocene Perspective

The Anthropocene describes a new geologic epoch that is characterized by a strong human influence on Earth system processes, not the least the climate system. The identification of this epoch contrasts to previous geologic periods, which have been defined in retrospect through stratigraphic and fossil evidence. The Anthropocene can be considered a self-reflexive epoch whose importance goes beyond geology, for the concept itself introduces a new and potentially transformative perspective on human-environment relationships.

The Anthropocene recognizes humans as an integral part of the Earth System, bearing both a capacity and responsibility for shaping future outcomes. The concept is straightforward to those who are familiar with the dramatic influence of humans on the global environment, as depicted in the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, and many other research reports. However, the concept of the Anthropocene is not easy to grasp, and it can be interpreted (or misinterpreted) from multiple perspectives.

Recognizing the many perspectives on human-environment and people-planet relationships is critical to understanding the significance of the Anthropocene. The research of Dr. Terri O’Fallon at Pacific Integral draws on developmental psychology and other fields to describe “perspective-taking”, or patterns in human experiences related to how humans make meaning and how this may evolve over time. O’Fallon identifies six viewpoints or perspectives, which are interpreted and described below in relation to the concept of the Anthropocene. These vignettes should be considered as loose examples that in no way capture the depth of O’Fallon’s comprehensive research in this field.

1st person perspective: The Anthropocene as a given

From a first person perspective, one tends to see the world as a fixed and given reality that is not questioned. O’Fallon describes this as a concrete perspective, similar to the view of the ‘terrible twos,’ where no other viewpoints are recognized. Although the concept of “environment” is not apprehended by a first person perspective, one might imagine the ‘Anthropocene’ to translate into a collection of discrete yet interacting objects – trees, lakes, flowers, squirrels, minerals – that are available for human use. Importantly, the first person perspective assumes that everyone else shares this view of the world.

2nd person perspective: The Anthropocene as a rule

With a second person perspective, one begins to recognize that there are other ways of viewing at the world. However, while other views are acknowledged, the frame of reference and perception are still based on one’s own view. O’Fallon describes this as the perspective of the child or teenager, where social norms, rules and expectations of the collective influence actions. The environment is generally ignored, and the “Anthropocene” would likely receive attention only if others defined it as important, or if there were clear rules to definine ways of “being” in the Anthropocene.

3rd person perspective. The Anthropocene as progress

A third person perspective is able to take another’s view, imagining what they might do and considering it strategically in relation to their own. Although it may recognized that individuals and groups may have different mental models, values, and interests, a third person perspective prioritizes self-interests and achievements consistent with their own view. In terms of the human-environment relationships, a third person perspective emphasizes objectivity; the geologic “stratigraphy” of the Anthropocene can be described and discussed unproblematically from this perspective. The Anthropocene is likely to be understood not just as a system, but as a sign of progress.

4th person perspective: The Anthropocene as a context

From a fourth person perspective, one begins to realize that the actions and interactions of humans with the environment cannot be separated from the context (e.g., the physical, socioeconomic, political, cultural, and psychological conditions) as experienced by individuals and groups. The Anthropocene becomes a discourse and meta-narrative for understanding and explaining how humans have influenced the global environment, as well as how their responses will influence the future. This is the story of a planet transformed by humanity, and a planet whose future is in the hands of humanity. Care for the planet and the future of humanity thus become concerns. Importantly, the story recognizes that the experience of a single “humanity” is not shared by all, and that it may be difficult to reach a consensus about sustainable responses in the Anthropocene. Nonlinear social change becomes an emergent property of the Anthropocene.

5th person perspective: The Anthropocene as a perspective

From a fifth person perspective, one starts to “feel” the system in a different way, recognizing that one’s own perspective on and in the Anthropocene is merely a perspective, which itself is a perspective, which in turn is a perspective. Humans are no longer merely actors in the system whose psychology and actions can be objectively modeled and predicted. They are, in a sense, the system; their thoughts, ideas and beliefs about the system are shaping and shaped by its evolution and trajectory. The system is a social construction, and one recognizes the significance of humans, not just as victims or villains of global environmental change, but as the ones who are collectively influencing the narrative, the processes, the questions and what is taken to be “given.” The concept of the Anthropocene is a term that can be filled in different ways, with dominant perspectives tending to define the agenda.

6th person perspective – the Anthropocene as a whole

The sixth person perspective is a qualitatively different view of the Anthropocene, and in many ways it can be considered a “view from the moon.” This is not identical to an objective third-person perspective that can be studied with methodologies such as remote sensing. From a sixth person perspective, one perceives humanity and the Earth system as a dynamic whole consisting of impermanent patterns of material and information flows. It is, according to O’Fallon, the first place where one sees the true simplicity on the other side of complexity. One sees how these patterns produce outcomes and responses, leading to more outcomes and more responses that resonate through the system, creating chains of reactions that are observed and measured as changes in the global political economy and Earth system. From this perspective, the Anthropocene is considered part of a larger “kosmic” system, opening up for even larger perspectives.

The Anthropocene is more than a geologic epoch; it is a potentially transformative concept – one that can be viewed from progressively wider and more inclusive perspectives. Time and space expand with each perspective, and relationships between humans and the environment changes with the emergence of each new one. As O’Fallon (2012: 23) notes, “a larger view can transform the entirety of all that we thought we knew.”

In short, although the term Anthropocene has not yet been officially adopted by geologists, the concept is still significant–not for what it describes, but for what it does: It challenges us to consider new perspectives on human-environment relationships, and perhaps even to engage with the world and each other in different ways.

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