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Cultivating Our Better Human Qualities in the Anthropocene (a.k.a. 'Age of Man')

April 08, 2013 | By Dina Buck

Geologists are debating whether or not we are in the Anthropocene, or Age of Man.  If the answer is yes, the current geological epoch is marked by the fact that human behavior is the primary planetary influence of the times, and has been since the Industrial Revolution in Europe began.

The Human Biomass - 'More Bacterial than Primate'?

If you read about what defines the Age of Man, and despite the fact that there is debate about when and whether we have actually moved out of the Holocene, there's no arguing that humans are having a strong, disruptive, and largely degrading impact the planet. Our altering of landscape, atmosphere, and ocean leaves no corner of the Earth untouched, and it seems our legacy will be the wake of damage we have wrought.

This article by Elizabeth Kolbert for The National Geographic states that Paul Crutzen, the Dutch chemist who coined the term "Anthropocene," hopes the word "will be a warning to the world." Discussing our unprecedented impact on the planet, Kolbert quotes biologist E.O. Wilson who said, "The pattern of human population growth in the twentieth century was more bacterial than primate," and adds, "Wilson calculates that human biomass is already a hundred times larger than that of any other large animal species that has ever walked the Earth."

When the presence of humans on the planet is painted in this way, as more bacterial than primate, it's not hard to see why the Anthropocene is associated with apprehension, concern, even anger and fear. Indeed, we sometimes refer to ourselves as a planetary cancer.

Cultivating Our Better Human Qualities - Making the Age of Man an Age of Consciousness

While what characterizes the Anthropocene are the physical effects human behavior is having on Earth's natural systems, we should not ignore the role human psychology plays. The root of our effect on the outer world is intertwined with the intangible stories, beliefs, emotions, and attitudes we hold in our hearts and minds.  And if what is in our hearts and minds drives our behavior in the world, then let us endeavor to bring out our better human qualities.

In light of this, how about making this the Age of Empathy?  The Age of Mindfulness?  The Age of Eco-literacy?  The Age of Loving Kindness? The Age of Living More Simply (so others - and not just humans - may simply live, as the saying goes)?

While it is paramount we pay attention to the tangible negative planetary changes we are responsible for, let us not forget that human beings are also capable of manifesting enormous amount of good, tangible and intangible.  Lest we make our strong focus on the negative aspects of the Age of Man more sure to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, we should make cultivating our better human qualities one of our paramount responsibility.

We need to clean up the environment, consume less, buy humane/green/organic, vote with our dollars, buy local, get involved in causes we believe in, fight for conservation, etc. But, we also need to clean up our inner worlds.

Just as habits of conspicuous consumption, me-first, fear, aggression, numbing out, etc. had to be cultivated and reinforced, we can cultivate and reinforce patience, connection, consideration, mindfulness, compassion, inclusivity, and respect for the Earth and other living things.

What's inspiring is that so many of us, in all our ingenuity, are already on their way, establishing, for example, programs aimed at cultivating empathy, mindfulness, and eco-awareness in youth.

Here are some great examples:

  • Startempathy.org helps parents, educators, and institutions cultivate empathy in children.  The organization's website states that children who master empathy by the age of six are less likely to bully others 10 years later, and that empathy can determine how a child fares in life later on.
  • Mindful Schools is bringing secular mindfulness meditation into schools to help train youth how to handle stress, manage their emotions, and resolve conflict.  This gives kids a life skill that can aid them the rest of their lives.
  • Green School, in Bali, Indonesia is teaching its students "to be creative, innovative, green leaders."  It won the 2012 Greenest School on Earth award from the U.S. Green Building Council’s Center for Green Schools.
  • The Center for Ecoliteracy offers educational materials, services and resources to help schools and allied organizations integrate sustainability into their K-12 curricula.

Resources for Cultivating Our Better Human Qualities:

  • This Yes! Magazine article, 6 Habits of Highly Empathetic People, which helped inspire this blog post, lists 6 things we can do to cultivate our own capacity for empathy. My favorite on the list is "Challenge prejudices and discover commonalities."
  • This article,  A Mile in Their Shoes: Understanding Empathy takes a close look at what empathy is (from asu.edu).
  • Listen more, talk less.  This article from mindful.org on Deep Listening gives three techniques for tuning into body, speech, and mind.
  • This HuffPost article, Cultivating Loving Kindess, talks about the practice of "maitri."  It's a very simple Buddhist approach/exercise that helps cultivate loving kindness toward others, but one need not be Buddhist to do the practice.
  • This personal account from someone who realized he had way too much clutter in his life give some ideas for reducing the clutter in yours in his article Living Simply: the Ultimate Guide to Conquering Your Clutter on zenhabits.net.

For further reading about the Anthropocene:

  • Read The Age of the Anthropocene: Should We Worry? on NYT's Room for Debate.
  • The Economist has an interesting geological timeline of the earth graphic, here, with a link to an article about the Anthropocene called A Man-made World.
  • Check out Conservation in the Anthropocene from thebreatkthrough.org.  It's an interesting take on environmental resilience and our impact on the planet. Read it and let us know what you think.

And keep on keeping on!  The world needs you!

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