Modern humans are a sociocultural species living in a sociocultural world on a used planet.
We live in exciting times. We now exist in an era when humans (anthropos) have fundamentally changed the geology of the earth and are present in almost all ecosystems. We have developed an energy consuming techno-social system that is comprised of humans, technological artifacts, and technological systems, together with the links, protocols and information that bind all these parts together: the sprawling combination of humanity and its technology. Technological advances have made data collection easier and cheaper than we could ever have imagined just 10 years ago. We can now synthesize and analyze large data sets containing genomes, transcriptomes, proteomes, and multivariate phenotypes. In our thousands of years of harnessing technology – including the first technologies like stone tools, wheels and crops – the technology itself has basically begun to act practically independently, creating a new sphere (i.e., like the biosphere or atmosphere or lithosphere), but like nothing the planet has ever seen before. Simultaneously scientific and technological innovations and economic policies promoting growth at all costs have created a consumption and production vortex on a collision course with the Earth system.
We are pushing life on our shared planet toward overshooting biophysical boundaries, mass extinction and society’s need for the results of integrated research has never been greater. Solutions to many of the world’s most pressing problems— food and drinking water for a global population, coping with climate change, preserving ecosystems and biodiversity, curing and preventing genetically based diseases—will rely heavily on our scientific and technological advantages across disciplines.
Without intending to, human societies evolved the capacity to force Earth into the Anthropocene. Fundamental changes on a planetary system scale have already begun. The very considerable uncertainty is how long these will last – whether they will simply be a brief, unique excursion in Earth history, or whether they will persist and evolve into a new, geologically long-lasting, planetary state.
Human actions increasingly directing evolution.
The Anthropocene marks one of the major events in a planet’s life, when self-aware cognitive processes become a key part of the way the planet functions.
The principal cause of the Anthropocene is social, rooted in the exceptional capacities of Earth’s first ultrasocial species: modern humans. The key is not the rise of technology alone, but rather humanity’s incredibly rich social life. Our socialness is the major driving force behind the changes on the planet we are witnessing today.
Human societies have transformed Earth because their social capacities to construct the human ecological niche have scaled up and intensified through long-term processes of evolution by natural selection. The human ecological niche is thus largely sociocultural, constructed and enacted within, across and by individuals, social groups and societies based on socially learned behaviors. Long-term changes in the structure and functioning of human societies and their transformation of environments is the product of evolution acting on these processes of sociocultural niche construction. Human societies have evolved a tremendous diversity of complex cultural forms, all with profoundly different effects on their environments. This rapid diversification is partly explained by the observation that cultural traits can evolve far more rapidly than genetic traits.
Behaviorally modern human societies have always engineered ecosystems to sustain themselves. Human societies are not sustained by the balance of nature but by a sociocultural niche constructed through cooperative ecosystem engineering and the social exchange of food and other needs and wants (hunger is not -just- caused by environmental limits to food production but (also/mainly) by social limits to food distribution).
The challenges of sustaining nonhuman species and habitats in an anthropogenic biosphere have never been greater as the scale, extent, and intensity by industrial societies is already without precedent and continues to accelerate. Perhaps the greatest challenge for conserving nonhuman species and habitats is that human harm to these is generally not intentional, but rather results as the unintended consequences of intentional human-benefitting sociocultural niche construction. Including ecosystem engineering for agriculture and resource extraction (habitat loss and degradation, pollution), industrial production and infrastructure (pollution, hydrologic change), social exchange (facilitated biotic exchange, wildlife trade), and energy substitution (pollution, climate change, ocean acidification).
Yet the increasing global scale, interconnection, and capacity for engineering of human societies may yet prove to be powerful forces driving major societal shifts in both valuing and conserving nonhuman nature. The societal benefits of sustaining nonhuman species and habitats have likely never been clearer, as the ecological linkages among human health, social systems, and engineered environments are increasingly understood both theoretically and with the aim of advancing intentional management by societies.
Just as today’s globalizing and urbanizing societies are growing more concerned with the need to conserve nonhuman nature, they are becoming more and more capable technologically, culturally, and socially of accomplishing this.
The fluxes of nature are fast becoming cultures of nature. To investigate, understand, and address the ultimate causes of anthropogenic ecological change, not just the consequences, human sociocultural processes must become as much a part of ecological theory and practice as biological and geophysical processes are now.
As cities continue to grow, and cities control previously elusive aspects of human evolution we have to define the urban complex network of physical and social interactions. To understand our cities is to understand us. Understand how complex networks give rise to creativity, how urban metropolis are dramatically affecting a cultural connection reaching back nearly 400 years. This research and debate challenges us to rethink the human’s place and status in a more than human world. A (post)human world does not imply abandoning anthropology’s principle subject, but rather resituating the human in a logic of relations. Eco-logically, this requires recognizing a shared world in which humans and non-humans, machines, objects and information are mutually constituting and dynamically inter-acting within systems of great complexity. (Post)human and systems thinking thus advances towards a non-dualistic understanding of multiplicity and radical interdependency. This is not to say that all things are equal, but rather that entities should be differentiated within a unity. If we take the logic of relations seriously, our understanding shifts from a world of separate entities to one of interdependent processes.
This ontological relativism implies that it is not enough to rethink the positional relationships between traditional categories like nature and culture, subject and object, human and animal or human and technology. The reason for this is that reductive dualisms are already set up by singular concepts. Facing up to the ecological crisis and its underlying anthropocentrism, an anthro-de-re-centred orientation calls for resituating the anthropos in a relational nexus. In a shared world, the human is co-constituted not only by its own humanimality, but also by ‘human-and-non-human’ and the socio-material dynamics of physicalities and culturalities.
Being-in-the-world means that we cannot be taken separately from the dynamic environments we inhabit and are enveloped by. I -still- believe in people and a long-term future on earth. We are not intrinsically nature’s enemy instead, we are the medium through which life becomes aware and transforms into something new, in a conscious way.