(Published in Village Magazine, January 2013)
This is an interview with environmental historian Professor John Robert McNeill of Georgetown University author of Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean, 1620-1914 (2010); The Human Web (2003); and Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the 20th-century World (2000)
Can you define the Anthropocene? I can, but there are various definitions and mine is no better than the next one. However, for my part, I like to define it as that time period in which human action has had deep impacts on the basic systems of the Earth. Those systems include such things as climate and biogeochemical cycles. Notice I am not saying it is an epoch or an era – the geologists will decide on that.
Can you trace its origin? For my money, it began only in the mid-20th century. But many scientists argue for various earlier Anthropocenes, some preferring 1800, some 5,000 BCE, some even earlier. A great deal depends on which sorts of evidence one prefers. Paleo-ecologists often like to cite evidence of large animal extinctions in the late Pleistocene as evidence of the onset of the Anthropocene. That would be roughly 13,000 years ago and earlier. But for me, that is not enough: one needs the multiple interventions of the last 75 years to justify the term.
What has been the impact of human beings on planet Earth? They are too numerous and profound to list concisely. I tried to take stock in a book published in 2000, entitled Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the 20th– century World, but that exercise took more than 350pp. And more detailed assessment abound at still greater length. However, I would say one could list among the more significant impacts, from the human point of view, are ongoing changes to the climate, changes to vegetation, especially the reduction in forests, acceleration of soil erosion, the reduction in infectious disease, especially waterborne disease, the advent of intense urban air pollution (and its reduction in some places, including Dublin!)
What changes do we need to make to our lifestyles to ensure the Anthropocene does not become a dark chapter featuring the collapse of many societies? We probably can’t ensure much of anything strictly speaking, but to improve the odds of a happy Anthropocene I’d recommend changing the energy system away from fossil fuels to something else that does not entail greenhouse gas emissions on any scale; supporting formal female education as a benign way to encourage lower fertility and slower population growth; more efficient urban design, since in the future ever more of us will live in and around cities.
One of your books confronts the subject of malaria. Do you think there is any prospect of eliminating this killer? No immediate prospect, certainly. The etiology of malaria is devilishly complex and the plasmodia responsible for infection are capable of evolving so as to sidestep efforts to check their proliferation. The best bet is mosquito control, but it is not a very good bet because dozens of anopheles species are competent to transmit malaria.
What other contagious diseases will pose a significant challenge to human beings in the future? This is extremely hard to predict. At the moment it is hard to ignore the outbreak of ebola, now raging in parts of West Africa and making an appearance in Madrid and Dallas. Whether that yet counts as a significant challenge probably depends on where you sit. Influenza is always a threat of sorts, because the virus in question mutates rapidly and could conceivably break loose once again as it did in 1918, when roughly 50 million people died of influenza. As a category, breath-borne viruses are probably the most worrisome.
In your opinion, what obligations to our natural environment and other species does our dominance of the planet confer? Everyone has a different opinion on this matter, and mine is no wiser than the next. That said, I take the (common) view that it confers upon us the obligation of stewardship: our power means we need to take responsibility for the survival of other species (however I’d make an exception for certain mosquito species that spread human disease, even if they too are God’s creatures).
A recent WWF report claimed that 50% of the world’s species have become extinct in the past 40 years. What is the value of biodiversity? In the first instance, if one accepts the notion that human power confers the responsibility of stewardship of the biosphere, then biodiversity has value in and of itself: we do not have the moral right to exterminate species. In the second instance, biodiversity is useful for ecological stability. When it is reduced, the probability rises of dramatic alterations of ecosystems, including ones we rely on. Third, many species are extremely valuable to us, as sources of medicines, or as pollinators for crops we depend on. There are probably unknown species that potentially offer us unknown medicines, if they are not first driven to extinction.
Robert Goodland and Jeff Anhang in an Earthwatch article in 2009 claimed that animal agriculture accounted for 51% of greenhouse gas emissions. Do you consider this credible? I haven’t seen the article in question, so I’ll refrain from pronouncing one way or another.
How can human beings feed themselves without fossil fuels? At the moment, we can’t. We would need different sources of energy or else a lot fewer humans.
What changes in agricultural policies in the US and EU do you believe should take place? There are a lot of perverse subsidies in US and EU agricultural policies. Most should probably go. I’d favour policies that make livestock farming more expensive; wasting water more expensive; intensive use of antibiotics on feedlots more expensive; intensive use of nitrogenous fertilizers more expensive. All this would make food more expensive, which would be unpopular and is not likely to happen any time soon!
Should governments in Western countries be encouraging widespread adoption of plant-based diets? Yes, as a matter of human health. I’d do it by adopting policies that gradually change the prices of various foods.
What role do you envisage for Nuclear energy? Nuclear power is tempting because the only greenhouse gases it produced come in the creation and destruction of power plants, not in their operation. However, I am not quite in favour of it, due to the risk of accident (viz. Chernobyl, Fukushima, among others), the risk of the wrong people getting their hands on fissionable material, and the unsolved problem of nuclear waste. Maybe in future some of these matters will be resolve so that nuclear power becomes a useful possibility. Not at the moment however.
Do you believe the innovative spirit of capitalism can provide the technological solutions for our dependence on fossil fuels? Yes, although I would encourage it because it may be too slow to forestall disagreeable climate change. I would do that by a carbon tax, one that escalates annually. And by prize money for useful innovation in the energy field.
How can humans restrain the acquisitive tendencies inherent in capitalism? I don’t think this can be done without some highly improbable ideological/religious transformation of societies.
Do you think that human beings can reach a point of equilibrium on the planet? More or less. Equilibria don’t generally endure for long, and upsets of one sort or another normally come along every so often. But it is plausible to imagine a human population much less ecologically disruptive than what we have at present, and indeed more or less in equilibrium with the biosphere. That could theoretically happen over centuries by a radical reduction in human population, although I regard that as unlikely. It could also happen through technological changes that make it easier for a few billion – maybe not 10 or 12 billion – to live much less disruptively on Earth. The first step, again, is to revolutionize the energy system.