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The Anthropocene is a time to create a new world, not preserve the old one


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In a fascinating piece for the June issue of the Brooklyn Rail, geographer Stephanie Wakefield turns a trip to South Florida into an occasion for proposing a radically different orientation to the Anthropocene. In Miami’s effort to elevate infrastructure before rising sea levels swallow the city, Wakefield sees an orientation to the Anthropocene that seeks desperately to preserve the world as it exists. But she suggests instead that we view the Anthropocene and the pending instability wrought by climate change as an opportunity to push forward towards a new kind of world. She names this orientation “living in the back loop.” In the excerpt below, she explains this rich terminology:

Father of resilience theory C.S. Holling has a useful way of thinking about a time like this. He calls it a “back loop.” This concept refers to the adaptive cycle, the main heuristic used by resilience ecologists to describe the four phases of life experienced by all natural systems–a human being, a city, a society, a civilization, a swamp, a forest, a company. On one hand, the adaptive cycle contains a “front loop” of early rapid “growth,” leading to a “persistence” or “stability” phase dominated by a few species and characterized by rigidity and the capture of earlier energies. Those “stable” states are not permanent. Gradual or sharp disturbance can cause systems to slip into a “back loop,” marked by a “release” phase where energies and elements previously captured in conservation phases are set free, unexpected new combinations emerge, and wild, exuberant experimentation becomes the modus operandi. The most understudied aspect of ecological systems, back loops are also one of the most exciting. As observed in ecological systems, the back loop is the phase of life in which individual organisms or small groups of individual organisms interact across previously unbridgeable divides and in doing create something fundamentally original. In contrast to life in the regimes we are leaving behind, where innovation was stifled and influence limited to a few actors with the greatest power—the stability “trap”—in the back loop beings and things are released and open to new potentials. Although most back loops studied by ecologists have been regional in character, in 2004 Holling penned an essay suggesting that “we are at the time of a large-scale back loop,” a global situation in which “each of us must become aware that he or she is a participant.” I think Holling’s challenge is important; but it is also an apt description of a phenomenon already underway.

If we accept being in a back loop, the question becomes, how do we respond? Do we try desperately to maintain the old “safe operating space,” freeze a process already in motion? Or could we let go, allow a time of exploration and experimentation, see what becomes of the pieces of us and the world?

Instead of looking for final answers, what if we accept that we are living in a transitional time, where things are in disarray, where the future’s uncertain, but where more is now possible and authorized than ever before? From this perspective our time is a time for audacity, experiments on the same playing field where our future is already being written for us. In short, living in the back loop. This new orientation and way of life entails finding new modes of nourishing ourselves, designing and raising buildings, staying warm or cool, and accessing clean water as it is does learning to face the unknown and learning to look into ourselves and ask what kind of life we want to make live, what kind of life is worth living, and really asking previously unaskable questions. What on earth could being be? By “we” I don’t just mean designers, city governments, planners, or resilience theorists who have already become back loop participants, as testified by the existence and growth of the resilience paradigm. By “we” I mean everyone: common people where they are, how they are, people who will bear the brunt of climate change, people who already needed the world to end yesterday so they could finally get a chance to live.

Image via Brooklyn Rail.