Natural palimsests

As Jacques Lacan argued, learning to inherit the past is a preliminary condition to become human. So, we’ve not be surprised that the past issue is central in any research that tries to frame Anthropocene. Lacan thought that who inherits his freedom ( and a future) can do it because he understood to be a son. He accepts his provenance, his origin, his point-zero that were totally independent from him. But, what does it mean to inherit in ecological terms?

First of all, inheritance means to stay within the nets of living: human being, too, shares the history of the Planet and its faunas. Since this history is astonishingly long (almost 4,5 billions of years), the aknowledgement of our belonging to the evolutionary processes that carved the Earth is a phylogenetic one. As heirs, we’re in a dynamic pace; our derivation from who preceded us is encoded in the DNA. Our genes connect us through ties of kinship to the living creatures who once upon a time populated the Planet and with those who thrive on it these days, from bacteria to mammals. The phylogenetic debt with the past is what Lacan called the “subjectification of legacy”. The present is an original blend of already available materials. “History is not a prerogative of the human species – points out Edward O. Wilson – In the living world there are millions of histories. Each species is the inheritor of an ancient lineage. History exists in a point of space and time after a long journey through the labyrinth of evolution”. Lacan, too, wonderfully depicted this side of existence: what is formed as ideal by the Ego belongs to the subject like the fatherland attached to the soles of shoes a refugee in exile brings along.

It was Hegel to show that the root of ethics – living in a human society with attention to the common needs and rights – is historically determined: humans can build more inclusive societies thanks to the sequence of the historic phases. The past merged into the present to form the future (Aufhebung). But ethics is also the concern for the public good and the aknowledgement that the community (stay-together) is a substantial part of the human enterprise. Being aware players of a common story, that is, according to Hegel, the only way to be a subject, and a citizen too, among other subjects. Therefore, ethics means to recognize the social bond as constitutive of ourselves. It’s in our history ( in our being sons ) that we must search for the reasons of the present. So, how much ethical is the community we live in?Human beings started to be embedded in activities that shaped and altered the distribution of many groups of species through most of taxa since the late Pleistocene. The kind of these changes include “extinctions, extirpations and shifts in species composition, diversity and communities structures”. The human ability to reshape global biodiversity is not a result of contemporary civilization: “the evolutionary trajectory of Homo sapiens has seen an exponential increase in the scope and impact of human niche constructing activities that have culminated in fundamental changes to planetary ecosystems”. The insight into micro-fossils and ancient DNA reveals “a pattern of significant long-term, anthropogenic shaping of species distributions on all of Earth’s major occupied continents and islands”. The main consequence of this pattern of human expansion is that few habitats can be considered pristine or intact or independent from our disturbance. As Erle Ellis admitted: “Most landscape are palimsests shaped by repeated episodes of human activity over multiple millennia”. Extinction particularly has been the most strong effect among the changes that over time marked our present Planet. Today, we know that abundance, composition, community structure, richness and genetic diversity of species are, partially, the result of the eco-evolutionary pattern written in human genes. Extinction is definetely a consequence of these ecological features, but, at the same time, the disappearance of most species is also a pattern of colinization and expansion of Homo sapiens.The fact that this pattern is still perfectly functioning is confirmed by the daily chronicle. The pressure of wildlife hunting for food is a main driver of extinction both in Africa and Asia recognized by the World Conservation Society despite of considerable differences and nuances in the two continents. In this story of geographical expansion of our niche, the paramount human settlements of the Mediterranean basin and of Midwest had played a main role. Cities actually were , and are, empowering networks of trade, formal and informal economies and social interaction. On a global scale, cities generate and enhance the cultural needs on which we draw our offtake of natural resources. Cities work out opinions, trends, mindsets with a direct “translation” onto ecosystems and biological diversity: “The emergence of socially stratified urban societies in the Near East and Egypt, for instance, was linked to the extirpation of a number of wild animal species (…) Ancient urbanisation contributed to a major reduction in large bodies mammal species in Egypt, from 37 in Late Pleistocene/Early Holocene to only 8 today”. In July 2016, some of the most renowed ecologists in the world published a call for action on Bio Science “to save from oblivion the remained megafauna”. Big mammals, both herbivores and carnivores, are disappearing: “In fact, 59% of the world’s largest carnivores (more than or equal to 100 Kilograms) and 60% of the world’s largest herbivores (more than or equal to 100 Kilograms) are classified as threatened with extinction on the IUCN Red List”. The magnitude of the catastrophe is so out of scale to be hardly comprehensible. According to FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization, 2014), there are “an estimated 3,9 billion ruminant livestock on Earth compared to approximately 8,5 million individuals of 51 of the 74 species of wild megaherbivores for which populations estimates are available within their native range”. The difference is hearthbreaking: it counts nearly 400 times.

Here the true dimension of ethics, in Hegel’s thought, comes back. Coexhisting is possible only where it exists a “glue” among the different social groups that are called to find a compromise, if they want lo live together. And this glue is feasible if any parts recognize dignity and agency to the others. A common past is strong bottom on which trying to share space and experiences. As a species among species, we humans have this historical advantage (the glue): phylogeny. But here begins also our problems. Phylogeny talks about a profound limit we find in ourselves. Despite the undeniable fact that technology emancipated modern life from Nature, we cannot still think of human beings as an alien. We belong to Nature and the eclipse of Nature touches the most intimate aspects of our consciousness. Nevertheless, this kind of limit is not the paradigma discussed in the last decades early by the Club of Rome, then by the annual report of World Watch Institute and by the Earth Summit in Rio (1992). The limit defines Homo sapiens’ action within the history of the Planet and, therefore, unites us to the other species. The fact that today we assume to get rid of Nature reflects what Massimo Recalcati, following Lacan, calls “volontà di ricominciamento”, the will to start once more from zero. In this vision, we’d be a vergin territory, “where carving our absolute program”. Here “absolute” sounds like its Latin ethimology: ab-solutum, freed from any conditions. Nature is so reduced to raw material, as Heidegger put it. Isolated from any idea of common belonging and shared history (evolution), Nature is only a land to plummet and exploit or, in the best case, an entertainment park. We live outside Nature because Nature itself has been deprived of its ontological agency.

Paleo-ecological data tell us about the speed of the process, that worked by pauses and unexpected accelerations. But the trajectory is very clear. In facts, the focus of these impressive reconstructions is that the substantial changes we’re able to impose on faunas fed a skyrocketing growth of human population. In easier terms, without a profound adjustment and modification of bioma and biota, our species could have not overcome our own carrying capacity, and of the Planet too. On a comprehensive scale, we have not only to study how we interacted with the species we regularly met on our path, or with the species still today live at the borders of our mega-cities, like leopards in Mumbai or coyotes in Chicago or red foxes in London. And it’s not the case neither to atone for “sins” and “grim habits” for which we would be called to make amends in the name of “our common home”. What we should admit is that there’re two inversely proportional orders of magnitude on the negotiations table. If the eco-evolutionary pattern of niche construction gives us a colored picture of how we thrive on Earth, then the main issue in conservation is not merely what to protect and what to keep, but, in a more complex way, how to pose a limit to our cultural and ecological expression. This scenario proposes a more radical and annoying question than any other question: is it sufficient to plan protected areas, reserves and conservation hot spots, or should we retreat? Are we ready to leave ideology to come into reality?

We can modify the status of species, by introducing, resettling and reshaping both the evolutionary position and the ecological role of some groups of species. And of course we have done a very good and creative job. As we settled all across the world, many species simply ceased to be wild. They got a new human-planned status : they became domestic, invasive, commensal (like the hay flowers that since 10 thousand years grow along wheat crops) and pathogen too. One of the reasons we are able to do so it is our onnivory, a generalist trait very important also in other primates, that is, litterally, an extraordinary tool of ecological resilience and geographic expansion: “Diverse ecological assemblages from Africa, Europe and South Africa document the Late Pleistocene appearance of small, quick and difficult-to-catch game, such as fish. birds, rabbits, rodents and monkeys, that may signal anthropogenic impacts to resources availability. Other studies document decreases in the size of certain species as limpets and tortoise that may also reflect resource overexploitation”.

The huge loss of species related to our activities can be plugged into a linear equation of social, economic and political drivers. Ehrlich and Kremer elaborated it: I=PAT. The success of humans on the Planet is the result of the match of population (P, how much efficiently can we reproduce), the consumption of resources pro capita (A) and technology. Human footprint on ecosystems is a combination of different powers: density of human population, the portion of terrestrial areas turned into agriculture, the accessibility of natural “stocks” by roads, rivers or coastal pathways and, eventually, the modern infrastructures, such as electric facilities. Our civilization is strongly engaged with the extinction of the other species. In facts, human demographic success overlaps with the ability in creating big settlements and then astonishing cities, and has a very dark side: the irreversible decline of entire families of species. The link between human civilization and extinction is one of the last and more cutting-edge outcomes of the recent research in paleo-ecology.

But in Anthropocene, we’re determined to archive phylogeny considering it pointless. Thanks to technology we’re able to shape ecosystems on our own. At least, to some extent. The ongoing offtake of natural resources is indiscriminate, indifferent and self-focused. While the scale of plundering and the attrition with the biosphere get worse, the feeling of phylogeny wanes. The most disturbing question in Anthropocene is, maybe, whether we still need wild nature. In his essay Ueber die Linie (1949), Ernst Juenger talked about this reduction-effect that is, in some ways, also a power-effect: the dominant feeling, he assumed, is reducing (Reduktion) and being reduced; reduction can be spatial, spiritual and psychic as well; it can concern the beautiful, the good, the truth, the economy, the health and politics, but, Juenger believed, it always resembles a Schwund (to fade away). What is striking is that this mood does not exclude an increasing display of power and penetration force. In other words, we now are the unique masters of the game, but, somewhere, we start detecting the price to pay for our cultural independence from Nature. Uneasiness and dismay are acute where ecological crisis is perceived as effective and real. It’s a feeling of both enstrangement and threat: the loss of the exile with no inheritance, who has cut bridges with everyone and everything. Some years before Juenger, studying nihilismus that he believed to be a common humor in his times, Martin Heidegger quoted the public discourse that in 1880 Fedor Dostoevskij gave in Saint Petersburg to commemorate the death of Puskin:“the man who has no peace, who is never satisfied, who does not believe in his father-land and in the strenght of his home-land”. It’s what Edward O. Wilson calls “the Eremocene, the Age of Loneliness”, that is, in facts, the grim “age of people, our domesticated plants and animals, and our croplands all around the world as far as the eye can see”. In the Anthropocene, it’s the idea of life itself to be at stake. In the absence of a species-awareness, the Planet is a mirror of ourselves. Therefore, in the overexploitation of the Planet hides a loss of humanity: an intimate deprivation and a detachment from our own identity. The well planned decision to confine the living Planet in refugee camps at the borders of civilization (sanctuaries, game reserves, national parks, recovering centres) keeps out of sight a devastating reality: the risk that the ultimate shadow of extinction will be the exile from life of all of us, animals and humans, too.

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