Freedom in the Anthropocene

Much needs to change in the Anthropocene, including our willingness to have constraints placed on our precious right to individual freedom.  This is particularly challenging for Americans whose country was founded on an Enlightenment-inspired understanding of freedom, uninformed by the advances of modern science that have taken place in the past century.

We accept the premise that shouting “fire!” to incite panic in a movie theatre is an unacceptable exercise of freedom of speech since it poses a clear threat to other patrons.  Yet somehow when Mayor Bloomberg proposes a ban on supersized sugar drinks to help combat the obesity and diabetes epidemic (40% of Americans are thought to be either diabetic or pre-diabetic), he is caricatured as “Nanny Bloomberg” to great effect by the soda industry, playing to our very American sense of our right to freedom from government interference in our private lives.  Never mind that we all pay for the health care crisis caused to a significant degree by the diabetes epidemic.  And never mind that sugar has clear health dangers and the same addictive qualities of certain drugs that we demand be regulated.

Interference in our so-called “freedom” will become the new normal in “the Anthropocene”—the new geological era named by Nobel-Prize-winning chemist Paul Crutzen ushered in by the industrial revolution and following the relatively stable 10,000 year Holocene. In the Anthropocene human influence on the planet will determine what is sure to be a more volatile, unstable, and uncertain future. The interdependence of all life on earth will become increasingly obvious and the ramifications of our human impacts will become undeniable, with profound moral implications that will alter our notion of individual freedom.

The juxtaposition of two articles in last week’s Economist magazine is illustrative of our failure to grasp the new ethical limits to freedom. The first, “Plenty More Fish in the Sea,” described progress being made in replenishing fishing stocks. It appeared only four pages apart from a story about dirty tar-sands oil production in Canada,  entitled “The Great Pipeline Battle.”

The first article celebrates the findings of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report on the great progress made in replenishing federally monitored fisheries—79 percent are now considered healthy.  Emphasizing the “importance of scientific quotas,” The Economist attributes this success, both ecological and economic (NOAA estimates commercial and recreational fishing generates $183 billion a year and over 1.5 million jobs), to “America learning a simple truth – that scientists, not fishermen or politicians, should decide how many fish can be caught.”

The Economist goes on to report that State-managed fisheries have further to go, and in its dysfunctional wisdom, the House of Representatives passed legislation forbidding NOAA from developing an innovative market mechanism to apportion fishing quotas, know as catch shares.  The two ignorant congressmen behind the ban claim the catch shares are designed “to destroy every aspect of American freedom under the guise of conservation,” the implication being that our forefathers didn’t risk their lives crossing the Atlantic in search of freedom only to be told they need to abide by some government-concocted catch share program!

The Economist rightly focused on the importance of adhering to scientifically determined quotas to manage finite fisheries, yet only four pages later when discussing energy, it misses the opportunity to make the connection between what science dictates and what should be legislated in an article on the tar-sands debate.  “The Great Pipeline Battle” details the multiple permutations pipeline companies and the Canadian government are exploring in order to ensure that Canada’s expanding tar-sands oil production gets to market.  The article quotes Scotiabank analyst Matthew Akman as saying, “While there are legitimate environmental worries, replacing gas exports (America is now awash in gas) with tar-sands oil is vital for economic growth” in Canada.

The “legitimate environmental worries” that Akman references include the fact that tar-sands oil contains three to four times as much carbon and other greenhouse gases as conventional oil according to the Pembina Institute, an environmental think tank in Calgary (industry estimates are lower).  They also include massive water usage and water table pollution problems, and the destruction of large swaths of Alberta’s Boreal forest—which contains 35% of Canada’s wetlands, thousands of plant and animal species, stores carbon, regulates climate, and filters water when functioning as a healthy ecosystem.

These “environmental worries” center on the scale of the tar-sands resource – “twice the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by global oil use in our entire history,” according to Jim Hansen, Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and widely regarded as one of the leading climate scientists in the world.

In a May 9 Op-Ed in the New York Times, which explains why he went to jail protesting the XL Pipeline, Hansen wrote, “If Canada proceeds, and we do nothing, it will be game over for the climate.”

Finite limits in the Anthropocene, the new geological era where the destiny of the planet, our home, is literally in our hands, come in many forms. Renewable resources such as fisheries require “scientific quotas” to limit how much can be taken per year without triggering collapse as the Economist nicely reports.  Waste sink limits, such as the greenhouse gas limit of the atmosphere necessary to avoid out-of-control warming, also require the constraints of “scientific quotas.”

To paraphrase the Economist, which somehow missed connecting the dots across just four pages in the same edition, we must remember a simple truth: scientists, not oilmen, bank analysts, or politicians, should decide how much carbon we can release into the atmosphere.  The determinations of science have been made.  They are detailed in the periodic reports issued by the Nobel-Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Scientific consensus has been reached—on the connection between the ingestion of refined sugar and diabetes and obesity, on the sustainable catch rate in a fishery, on the carbon absorption capacity of the atmosphere. That consensus calls for the strict imposition of scientifically determined quotas, not some foggy notion of  “pricing in externalities” as economists prescribe.  Price is a vital polity tool, but not a panacea.  What is the price of  the risk of a 50-foot rise in sea level to our grandchildren, and what discount rate do economists  propose we use to estimate the price we should pay to mitigate that risk today?

Yes, I’m afraid freedom in the Anthopocene is not going to look much like the freedom our forefather’s fought to defend.  Get used to it.