Redefining the Anthropocene

For the past decade, there has been a raging debate among conservationists over how best for humanity to interact with nature to create a better future. Here, I will argue that defining our current era as the Anthropocene epoch, in which the mark of human impact has reached every corner of the globe, has led to a dichotomy in which we must choose — to either restore the Earth toward natural, functioning ecosystems, or else become the ultimately-skilled gardeners who manipulate every aspect of nature — as the basis for conservation. Perhaps the resulting internal schism in the conservation world is based on a faulty or incomplete definition of the Anthropocene that unhelpfully distorts our view of our relationship with nature as through wavy glass, and prevents us from seeing that obvious problems and solutions are right under noses, and have been all along.

Many scientists and conservationists argue that we should do our utmost to prevent artificially-caused extinctions, which collectively are causing a Sixth Mass Extinction far more rapid than previous ones from the fossil record, with human failures as the cause. Other researchers contend that we can do more good by protecting healthy ecosystems, rather than focusing on individual species. The reality is that individual species protection, and broader habitat protection, are two equally necessary sides of the same conservation coin. Doing one in no way precludes pursuing the other; in fact, if you’re doing it intelligently, there is synergy in pursuing both at the same time. That’s what E.O. Wilson was driving at when he advocated for saving half the Earth in a natural state, to solve (or at least slow) the Biodiversity Crisis. Saving ecosystems is absolutely necessary to provide habitats required by individual species, and saving species is essential for maintaining healthy and functioning ecosystems, which fall apart in unpredictable ways when their component parts are removed. Single-species and ecosystem-based conservation methods aren’t contradictory; they’re two essential sides of the same coin.

The more fundamental schism lies between those who see value in conserving and restoring wild, self-willed nature, and those who are bent on human domination and control. Only the former can legitimately call themselves conservationists, but the latter don’t even deserve to be called pseudo-conservationists. They are dominionists, and their guiding principle is that humanity ought to control everything, including natural processes.

It has been these dominionists, led by Peter Kareiva of the Nature Conservancy, self-appointed “new conservationists,” who are seizing on the Anthropocene concept to conclude that because human imprints can be detected in every corner of the globe, we should give up on conserving native species, functioning ecosystems, and natural processes. Instead they posit that we should all accept a human-dominated world that accommodates a handful of generalist species that adapt well to human-dominated landscapes. The reach of human influence on nature leads to their conclusion that the natural world is all but doomed, and that we should all give up on preserving it in a natural state. The Anthropocene is thus transformed into an acceptable Manifest Destiny for humankind, which sabotages conservation efforts worldwide.

In the Anthropocene, nature has been relegated to a disturbance-mediated disclimax, a weedy existence in the cracks of the pavement and the trash heaps that accumulate in the back alleys. For dominionists, this outcome is not just acceptable but preferable: Humans can focus on satiating our boundless appetitites for wealth and consumption, and can stop worrying about and feeling guilty for the damage we are causing to the planet and all its other inhabitants. It’s the ecological equivalent of the “greed is good” economics of the Reagan era.

Those economics never trickled down to raise the standard of living for the working class, just as the call to embrace working landscapes and abandon of the conservation of wild nature will never sustain healthy natural systems. The systems, by the way, that humanity itself depends upon for our own survival.

I propose a new definition of the Anthropocene, as the age in which humanity has become not only recklessly out of balance with nature but also an overwhelming negative force of ecological destruction. It’s not where our spoor can be detected, but the relationship we have with nature, that is centrally important. This definition of the Anthropocene then points immediately to a unifying conservation imperative to back away from a toxic, parasitic relationship to nature and the Earth, and instead return our society to a healthy, productive, and mutualistic balance in which natural ecosystems, and the species that depend on them, can thrive.

By recognizing the Anthropocene as the period where humankind has gotten out of balance with nature, we redefine the problem: It’s not that nature isn’t resilient enough, it’s that humanity no longer possesses the willpower to coexist with a wild planet.

It’s our fault, as a species. All of it. One hundred percent. The Biodiversity Crisis. The destruction of natural ecosystems. The Climate Crisis. That’s where humanity, with our monomania for economic growth and exploitation of natural resources, is right now as a species. We need an intervention, and the only one who’s going to provide it for us is ourselves.

The good news is, we have rafts of science that inform not only the problems we’re causing, but also what the natural world requires of us in order to successfully coexist. We can wean our economy off climate-disrupting fossil fuels. We can protect 30% of lands and seas as wild, native ecosystems by 2030, and be well on our way to protecting 50% by 2050. We can develop more sustainable practices on intensively-inhabited and cultivated landscapes to give native species a foothold there, too. Recognizing the Anthropocene Epoch as the period in which humanity exists in a state of ecological imbalance gives us the proper incentive to do what we need to do next: Move past the Anthropocene as rapidly as possible, and into a new epoch where a stable climate, abundant biodiversity, and healthy native ecosystems predominate the world over.


Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit conservation group dedicated to protecting and restoring wildlife and watersheds throughout the American West.



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  1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
    Maggie Frazier

    Very good article – not much of a choice, is there? Either selfish & greedy “human domination” & continued destruction of this earth OR “allowing” other species their deserved habitat & safety & co-existing with them not over them. Actually NO choice!

  2. Lyn McCormick Avatar
    Lyn McCormick

    Erik, Thank you so much. I wake up everyday sign countless Petitions, write gobs of letters, make numerous phone calls and participate in every “environmental justice” webinar that comes across my radar AND donate as often as I can BUT THEN . . . .
    at the end of the day THE NEWS and I fall asleep feeling like I live on a different planet.

  3. Helen McGinnis Avatar
    Helen McGinnis

    Also, we can reduce our own population growth.

  4. Kevin Bixby Avatar

    I believe this may be the most important expression of the
    “environmental” problem in a long time. It is our values and attitudes that are the problem, in every issue, every space. Racial injustice. Economic injustice. Whatever. The idea that one group finds it okay to dominate and exploit “others” is the fundamental problem. The path to saving the planet and finding justice is the same.

  5. Chris Zinda Avatar
    Chris Zinda

    The schism is conservation v. preservation, that enviros refer to themselves as the latter.

    The recently released Biden Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful report marks the EXPRESSED END of any further preservation effort by the United States. It says preservation of public lands will not be addressed, the first official recognition that they are gardens to be tended, never again to be untrammeled wilderness.

    Another essay idea
    Well, that’s kinda good to know? I mean, the same is true with enviro.orgs (including HCN) that accept Patagucci, KEEN, ConAll or any other wreckreation money. That said and if your relationship correct, it should be a test of her Society of Environmental Journalists ethic/moral.

    The concept threatens the very fabric of them all.

    Almost done forking and supplementing all my beds, the bee people coming by soon.
    The more I think about these developments – Biden Admin out front of enviros on con/pres, my old piece, HCN/Sahn – I chuckle.

    The universe is ironic. Karma fo shizzle.

    If your piece is published, I hope you give enviros something deep to consider – their core philosophy, resultant professional actions and our dismal current affairs with little effect. They need to be forced into a choice that splits the “environmental movement” – are you a conservationist or preservationist?

    Then, preservationists need to become like Black Block (don’t put that in the piece) defending mother earth from conservationists by providing preservation advocacy, something that has been missing for, like, ever.

    It’s why I’m critical of WW, as Wilderness the best opportunity to immediately preserve from industrial working land status, most long ago and increasingly corrupted by the crush of wreckreation.

    Good luck.
    Of note, even REPUBLICAN Westerman (who supported Bishop, et al on House NR Committee says this about con/pres – out front of enviro.orgs!

    From The Hill:

    “A key Republican, Rep. Bruce Westerman (Ark.), said in a statement that he was glad the report included things like needing outdoor recreation but also argued it had too many unanswered questions.

    “I appreciate that the report incorporates many of the principles discussed at our forum, such as recognizing the vital distinction between conservation and preservation and the need to improve access to outdoor recreation, particularly for the nation’s sportsmen and women,” said Westerman, the top Republican on the House Natural Resources Committee, referring to an event earlier this week. ”

    Here’s the piece CP wouldn’t touch.

    I will be amazed HCN does yours, as I submitted it to them back in 2019.

    Note Biden Admin has proposed some of that contained in the piece, a weakened version of noncentralized planning, developing “appropriate uses.” The question will be if quotas and no use areas will be incorporated.

    From my piece.

    “The primary benefits of creating a single land management agency are economies of scale and consistency of policy. Economies of scale not only include management and science but also planning for the conservation and preservation of the entirety of our public lands, particularly crucial for endangered species survival, migration corridors and adjusting our perceptions of multiple use. Consistency of policy not only means grazing, logging, mining and recreation is managed on conserved lands with permittee clarity but also expectations are defined for the user – including biotic areas of no use and enforcement on these preserved lands.

    But, today, nobody sets a sidebar for preservation or planning for it, instead everyone capitulates to capitalist consuming conservation.”
    See thread.

    I thought you’d be interested. Read thread bottom up.

    To me, this subject was my most important work – not theocons – and gave me most angst.

    My core was shaken by the good guys being so badly broken.

    Today, I have more hope for their repentance and that someone will effectively advocate for preservation as the Biden planning effort moves forward.
    Last thing.

    I sure wish you had addressed the preservation- conservation issue in This Land as I suggested.

    Chalk it up to professional and personal growth.
    Yep. Growing. Every day.
    Just so we’re clear.

    The Conserving and Restoring America the Beautiful report (attached) marks the EXPRESSED END of any further preservation effort by the United States. It says preservation of public lands will not be addressed, marking the first official recognition that they are gardens to be tended, never again to be untrammeled wilderness.

    No wonder Westerman loves it. Trump probably does, too. And, it’s very Obama.

    Note big green, OIA, ConAl, etc. quotes at the very beginning. How closed door collaborative and devoid of non-corporate public input.

    Page 10.

    “The President’s directive recognizes the opportunities that America’s lands and waters offer and outlines a historic and ambitious challenge to the nation. The U.S. should aim to conserve “at least 30 percent of our lands and waters by 2030.”16 This challenge is the first-ever national goal for the stewardship of nature in America. Notably, the President’s challenge specifically emphasizes the notion of “conservation” of the nation’s natural resources (rather than the related but different concept of “protection” or “preservation”) recognizing that many uses of our lands and waters, including of working lands, can be consistent with the long-term health and sustainability of natural systems. The 30 percent goal also reflects the need to support conservation and restoration efforts across all lands and waters, not solely on public lands, including by incentivizing voluntary stewardship efforts on private lands and by supporting the efforts and visions of States and Tribal Nations.”

    Enviros now have something deep to consider – their core philosophy, resultant professional actions and our dismal current affairs with little effect. They need to be forced into a choice that splits the “environmental movement” – are you a conservationist or preservationist?

    IMV, preservationists need to become like Black Block defending mother earth from conservationists by providing preservation advocacy, something that has been missing for, like, ever.

    A preservation constituency needs to be developed ASAP, Wilderness (quotas) and Natl Wildlife Refuges (kick ag and hunting) the first targets.

    The report will either become legislation OR a NEPA document. Those decision points are crucial and play out over the next 6-12 months.

    Which side are you on?

    1. Chris Zinda Avatar
      Chris Zinda

      Please delete the above for privacy purposes. Something went wrong with my cut and past, the problem of this site having no preview before posting.


    2. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      +1 You can see all this coming, but we should refuse to allow it. It’s very worrying.

  6. Maggie Frazier Avatar
    Maggie Frazier

    Of course, I hadnt read exactly what Biden’s legislation said! I think we have all been so terrified of what the former guy had done & was doing that absolutely any little thing that this administration is attempting is so much of an improvement, we heave a sigh of relief. The scary thing is that if the other party gets their hands back on our country these small steps are gone. And yes, the continued “sharing” of Parks, Wilderness and public lands with recreation, development, hunting, and that dam grazing wont begin to solve what we’ve done to this earth. People – all people – will have to wake up to what we have done and continue to do every day. Too many all over the world just dont want to know.

  7. cynthia brown Avatar

    we need to save our lands as well as our wildlife and
    and manage everything properly

  8. Jack Avatar

    The two most important points I see reiterated in this piece that most anyone deeply thinking about environmental issues arrives at, are: 1) the exploitation mentality in modern human consciousness, and 2) an economic system absurdly based on unlimited growth, are at the root of our planet’s ongoing destruction. I’d love to be proven wrong, but I don’t see either of these things changing significantly before the natural systems that support us collapse.

  9. Barrie K Gilbert Avatar

    Redefining the Anthropocene
    I would like to offer an example for consideration of this scenario that we might learn from. It is based on the impressive case of the complexity of current and historical natural systems.
    Exhibit 1.
    We understand much of the role of salmon in building the foundational and complex terrestrial natural systems: enriching the coastal rainforests with salmon nutrients, which support an unbelievably diverse vertebrate and invertebrate food network.
    The issue: salmon build rainforests. We are only starting to understand the myriad complexities of this service to our civilization. Why would we even think of substituting a cartoon-like simplified Anthropocene perspective, with its very limited view of ecosystem services, that we have hardly begun to understand?

    To me, the Anthropocene vision is both fatalistic, lacking in ecological reality as our science shows, and fails to recognize our limitations in current scientific understanding.

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      “We understand much of the role of salmon in building the foundational and complex terrestrial natural systems: enriching the coastal rainforests with salmon nutrients, which support an unbelievably diverse vertebrate and invertebrate food network.
      The issue: salmon build rainforests.”

      It’s very beautiful, isn’t it. When I had first read this report or study, about how the salmon nutrients are even in the trees, I was in awe. We can’t continue to ruin things.

  10. Beeline Avatar

    It appears that the ecological understanding of the very few has not yet been enough to change the environmental destruction of the very many.

    Our current economic stress only amplifies seeing the world in terms of economics and capitalism, where various ‘resources’ are worth only dollars, which is an attitude long held here in the U.S. and an attitude reinforced by modern propaganda. I would call this Epoch the “Propagandocene”.

    Salmon as an example – OK.

    Before the Eurocentric people arrived in North America the Yurok people that lived on the north coast of California considered the salmon so sacred that only the tribal medicine person used the proper name for the salmon. The rest of the tribe called them “sea deer”. No one in the tribe was allowed to catch even one salmon until the tribal medicine person contacted the “spirit” of the salmon to determine when and how long the salmon harvest could last. It is said that if anyone violated this law that they risked death. This demonstrates a degree of relationship and connectedness to the environment that our modern society will never know.

    In our modern world spirituality and technology have an inverse relationship. Greater technological advancement along with the hierarchical system of governance and capitalism means much less spiritual development if any. The following is an excerpt from the writing of Livingston Stone, an early fish culturist from the 1870’s that foretells the doom of the salmon at the hands of the “white culture”.

    “I will say from my personal experience that not only is every contrivance employed that human ingenuity can devise to destroy the salmon of our west coast rivers, but more surely destructive, more fatal than all, is the slow but inexorable march of these destroying agencies of human progress, before which the salmon must surely disappear as did the buffalo of the plains and the Indians of California. The helpless salmons life is gripped between these two forces- the murderess greed of the fisherman and the white man’s advancing civilization- and what hope is there for the salmon in the end”.

    Frank Herbert said that “the highest function of ecology is the understanding of consequences”. Will enough of the population learn and take action before it is too late. I am not betting on it.

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      +) Yes. :’)

  11. Barrie K Gilbert Avatar

    Here is another example: feral cats aws part of the Anthro-obscene.
    “Introduced mammalian predators can have devastating impacts on recipient ecosystems and disrupt native predator–prey relationships. Feral cats (Felis catus) have been implicated in the decline and extinction of many Australian native species and developing effective and affordable methods to control them is a national priority. While there has been considerable progress in the lethal control of feral cats, effective management at landscape scales has proved challenging. Justification of the allocation of resources to feral cat control programs requires demonstration of the conservation benefit baiting provides to native species susceptible to cat predation.”

  12. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Excellent article, and I totally agree and what I hope for.

  13. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    “The coming projects are far larger than the existing pilot projects and have generated opposition from some coastal communities and commercial fishermen.

    Environmentalists have also raised concerns about the potential impact on birds, fish and marine mammals, including the North Atlantic right whale, a critically endangered species that migrates through swaths of ocean designated for wind-farm construction.

    “This is a pivotal moment, and one with high stakes for birds,” Joel Merriman, director of the American Bird Conservancy’s Bird-Smart Wind Energy campaign, said in a statement. “We will be looking for strict protections for wildlife as this new industry takes flight in U.S. waters.””

    I wonder how this will affect the right whale population, where there are today only approx. 360, and only approx. 100 breeding females?

  14. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    My local news is reporting this as practically a done deal, with the project to be completed in two years, and of course ‘jobs’. But somehow, I don’t think so. I don’t know if an ESA exemption has or would be been give here, and it would be a terrible thing:

    “The whales’ welfare is factoring into plans for wind energy development too. BOEM officials say seasonal restrictions and mitigation during pile-driving and other construction activity must be included in developers’ plans. Naval architects and shipbuilders constructing crew transfer and service operations vessels for turbine projects need to consider 10-knot speed limits when NMFS reports right whale movements near the wind energy areas.

    In addition to aerial surveys NEFSC scientist Lisa Conger leads a team on Cape Cod Bay photographing right whales on the center’s research vessel Selkie. On March 22, the scientists sighted their first right whale mother-and-calf pair of the season in the bay.”

  15. Cambria Smith Avatar
    Cambria Smith

    I think your points are right on the money, or off the money I should say! Love how you broke it down. I have been writing similar papers at my University of Hawaii this semester. Science and collaboration for ecosystem restoration and protections are vital. This is our only hope as a species and for other species to thrive too. Thank you for your work in educating others to show them the way we can all do it.

  16. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Here’s an opinion on the “America the Beautiful” proposal, with some concerns to think about. Does this mean that, with no Federal input, that not only will wolves not be relisted, but that no other endangered animal will receive Federal protection? No Federal involvement or accountability for any efforts just will maintain the status quo.

    You’d think that after what happened with the sage grouse that leaving things voluntary might not be the best approach? It’s concerning:

    ““Rather than simply measuring conservation progress by national parks, wilderness lands, and marine protected areas in the care of the government, the President’s vision recognizes and celebrates the voluntary conservation efforts of farmers, ranchers, and forest owners…[it is] a call to action to support locally led conservation and restoration efforts…””

    Simply? And what or who on earth are ‘forest owners’?


Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan’s Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of “Hiking Idaho.” He also wrote “Beyond the Tetons” and “Backpacking Wyoming’s Teton and Washakie Wilderness.” He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

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