Strictly speaking, the earth does not itself mind being brought into the #Anthropocene. There is nothing about the earth that justifies any talk about the temperature it “ought” to maintain, or the size of the polar ice caps it “should” have. The fact that recent climate change is, beyond any reasonable scientific doubt, anthropogenic in nature makes no difference to the earth.
The environmental philosopher and anthropologist Thom Van Dooren writes of “incredible loss” in his penetrating new book, Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction (Columbia University Press). But a loss to whom? Or to what? Van Dooren gives us intimate, detailed biographies of a handful of imperiled species of birds. We learn, for example, of the American whooping crane (Grus americana), now being taught to discover new migratory routes by conservationists guiding them in ultralight aircraft. And we learn of the Indian vulture (Gyps indicus), whose bloody sanitation work makes it both a fearsome sight for humans (its head is featherless, better to insert it into the innards of carcasses) and a link in the chain of life and death. The crane’s prospects are looking better than those of the vulture at present, thanks largely to the differing attitudes and policies of the humans around them. Humans can occasionally help the animals, though even here, as Van Dooren clearly sees, there is a troubling mixture of care and violence. When we guide cranes along new routes, we are making choices about life and death, just as when we slaughter or let an animal die by neglect.
In all of this, again, #nature itself is indifferent. The earth does not resent its humans, nor does it have any interest in preserving its polar bears or its rain forests. In fact, many species would do very well in a significantly hotter environment. Snakes like the giant Titanoboa thrived during the late Paleocene, as the tropics approached one of several thermal maxima. Attempts have been made to account for the current state of the earth as the one that is fitting and “healthy.” But unless one accepts the Gaia hypothesis, there are no plausible grounds for supposing that the earth is an organism, and thus that it might really be healthy or sick, or that it might have a suitable body temperature or ideal set of charismatic megafauna. We talk about “saving the earth,” but what we really want is to save ourselves.