Headline: Is a New Harmony with Nature Possible in the Anthropocene? Mark Lawrence Speaks before UN General Assembly

In 2009, the UN General Assembly declared 22 April International Mother Earth Day. In this way, Member States expressed their conviction that we must strengthen our efforts towards a harmonious relationship between humans and nature. This will be essential if we are to meet current and future demands made on the economy, society and the environment in a sustainable way. In the same year, intergovernmental negotiations based on the principle of “Harmony with Nature” got under way. These negotiations aim to support a shift from an anthropocentric worldview to the recognition of nature as an equal partner of humanity. At the fifth dialogue of the Harmony with Nature Initiative, IASS Scientific Director Mark Lawrence spoke before the UN General Assembly today on options for living in harmony with the environment in our human-dominated epoch, the Anthropocene. Picking up on a talk he gave at the second dialogue in 2012, he stressed in particular the necessity of giving the post-2015 Development Agenda a solid foundation.

In his talk, Lawrence, who is mainly engaged in climate and atmospheric research, described possible transitions from the “Anthropocene as we know it” to an “Anthropocene 2.0”. He claimed that to date, the impacts of our activities on the environment have for the most part been unintentional and uncoordinated, for example, the side effects of generating energy, combusting fuel in transportation or cultivating wheat for the production of food. In the light of the Great Acceleration since the 1950s, which is apparent in increasing greenhouse gas concentrations and a rapidly growing global population, this is likely to change in the near future: “The future world’s society, or perhaps a coalition of nations, might try to take intentional, coordinated control of the global climate, as well as other parts of the Earth system, such as global vegetation and the hydrological cycle." This could take on an entirely different character given the discussions around so-called “climate interventions”, also called “climate engineering” or “geoengineering” – ideas that have been put forth for removing gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere in various ways, or for increasing the reflection of sunlight back to space, in order to cool the planet in an attempt to compensate some of the effects of global warming.

Lawrence explained that greater control over the environment would also lead us to revise our own self-image as humans and redefine our relationship with nature. The question of what kind of Anthropocene – or Anthropocene 2.0 – we’re creating for future generations is central: “Will it be a Human Anthropocene, one in which individually egocentric and collectively anthropocentric desires continue to dominate our behavior, showing our collective willingness to accept the suffering of fellow humans, as well as countless other life forms, in order to feed our insatiable desires for more and more? Or will it be a Humane Anthropocene, a compassionate and non-anthropocentric one in which we someday succeed in ascending to our potential to create a truly just and peaceful world in which Harmony with Nature is recognized as a part of our deepest Human Nature?"

The atmospheric scientist acknowledged that anybody who considers pathways to a harmonious relationship between humans and nature is inevitably confronted with images of rubbish dumps, oil catastrophes and factory farming, but he does see grounds for optimism. Firstly, there are many solutions available that do not involve taking coordinated control of the global environment, for example, technologies for renewable energy, sustainable construction, organic farming and low-emission transportation. In continuing to follow these pathways to greater sustainability, greater cooperation among different societal groups will be vital, a project the IASS is committed to with its transdisciplinary approach. “There is a substantial movement worldwide to integrate the many forms of knowledge, and not to just rely on science to provide the answers,” Lawrence explained. This is the second reason why he’s optimistic. Thirdly, there is a growing awareness in the general population that changing our ways is both urgent and possible – and that such change can even increase one’s joy in life.

As a fourth reason, Lawrence pointed to the observation that movements committed to harmony among humans have recently been gaining momentum. And greater harmony among humans supports greater Harmony with Nature. “These connections are being recognised in many different ways, for instance, in the increased attention on mindfulness and happiness. [...] Cultivating mindfulness and deep happiness can contribute significantly by supporting us in making the sweeping systemic changes that would be needed to attain sustainable development and Harmony with Nature.”

Summing up, Lawrence called on the Assembly to consider – particularly in the light of the post-2015 Agenda – whether we are headed in the direction of an Anthropocene 2.0 with its intentional interventions in the environment and really want that, or whether we would prefer to embark on a path to a human Anthropocene or even to a humane Anthropocene. He stressed the importance of integrating different forms of knowledge: the experiential knowledge gained through individual efforts and behavioural changes can lead to an understanding that is deeper than academic knowledge and also inspires others. Not least, efforts towards mindfulness and happiness are not only strengthened by nature, but in turn support our Harmony with Nature.