Bringing together a series of interdisciplinary studies from archaeology, ecology, anthropology and evolutionary theory, Erle Ellis, professor of geography and environmental systems at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County, explains the evolution of cultural practices that have allowed societies develop unprecedented capabilities. expand and transform the ecological systems that support them.
From the use of fire to cook food and manage vegetation to the technologies and institutions that support intensive agriculture, increasingly urbanized societies, and global supply chains that span the planet, human societies have developed social capabilities. , cultural and ecological to reshape the planet and prosper in the process.
Ellis is a leading scientist researching the Anthropocene, the current geological era defined by human transformation of the planet. He is the founder and director of the Anthroecology Laboratory, which studies the relationships between human societies and ecosystems at local and planetary scales with the goal of guiding more sustainable human relationships with the biosphere. He is currently a visiting fellow at the Oxford Martin School, where he recently presented his work on the opportunities of the Anthropocene.
Towards a better future
While human societies have acquired unprecedented capabilities to improve the quality and longevity of human lives, Ellis shows that the unintended consequences of these advances have generally been negative for the rest of life on Earth, since climate change. until species extinctions to increasingly widespread pollution. These disruptive environmental challenges of the Anthropocene demand action if we want a better future for both people and the rest of nature.
However, as Ellis demonstrates, presenting the Anthropocene as an environmental crisis ignores its most important message. When people work together, they can truly change the world for the better. The urgency of current planetary environmental challenges does not mean that narratives of environmental crisis, limits and collapse are more effective in bringing people together to forge a better future. Successful efforts to shape a better long-term future require harnessing the unprecedented social capabilities of human societies and leveraging their application through widely shared human aspirations.
Connecting with each other and with nature
Ellis assesses the limits of the natural sciences to successfully forecast and manage the unprecedented transformative changes in societies, environments, and interactions that exemplify the Anthropocene condition. Rather, the capabilities that have always allowed human societies to survive and even thrive in challenging environmental conditions are social and cultural, built on the institutions, practices and narratives that enable cooperative efforts to support the common good. And if we want a better future for the rest of nature, these social and cultural capabilities must extend to life beyond human societies.
“Re-emphasizing the kinship relationships between all living things (our common evolutionary ancestry) is a start, combined with new ways of connecting people and nature, from remote sensing to webcams, nature apps, community conservation reserves , corridor networks and ecotourism,” shares Ellis. “Aspirations for a better future must also make peace with the past by restoring indigenous and traditional sovereignty over lands and waters.”
Ellis emphasizes that the social capacities to forge a much better future than the one they are forging now have existed for decades. The key to putting them into practice is to motivate their implementation by increasing public awareness that these capabilities not only exist but can be successfully implemented through the unprecedented planetary power of our shared human aspirations to live in a better world.
Reference: “The Anthropocene Condition: Evolving through Socioecological Transformations” by Erle C. Ellis, January 1, 2024, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B.