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Time to take ownership of the Anthropocene

Maybe you, too, know that feeling of despair that comes when learning of some catastrophic impact of climate change — a disappearing coral reef, an extinguished species, a rising coastline’s impact on struggling farmers. A recent headline in the Guardian about the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report makes it hard to feel anything else: “Climate change a threat to security, food and humankind.” When I investigated the threats posed to our global food system by climate change and the environmental damage caused by industrial agriculture — as well what people are doing to fix these problems — for my book Consumed: Food for a Finite Planet, I became familiar with this feeling of doom.

I interviewed many scientists, such as U.S. Department of Agriculture plant physiologist Lewis Ziska, who has studied what higher levels of CO2 and warmer temperatures will mean for plant growth. (Spoiler alert: It’s the weeds, not crops, that will best thrive.)

Some of these scientists spoke only about their sobering findings, but others spoke openly of their feelings about the future. Many said they are pessimistic. One plant biologist even confessed such a fear of the future that she’d told her adult daughters not to have their own kids.

If we embrace the term, rather than let it scare us, and accept that having a geological epoch named after us comes with responsibility, then we can find hope for the future.

We may discuss the impact of climate change on the biosphere, but we don’t speak much about how it affects how we feel. I have cried quietly at my desk more than a few times. That is, until I found an antidote to the despair.

You see, there’s a flip side to the Anthropocene. On the one hand, the term speaks to the irreparable damage we have caused the biosphere. But if we embrace the term, rather than let it scare us, and accept that having a geological epoch named after us comes with responsibility, then we can find hope for the future. Because once we accept that it is our job to steward this Earth that we’ve already shaped so profoundly, we can start taking action toward improving the prognosis.

The ubiquity of this movement — from the highlands of Yunnan to downtown Miami — indicates that there is something big happening.

One example of where this is already happening is with the cultivation of sustainable food systems. Researching this global social movement, I met people in Yunnan, China, who are working with small rice farmers to stop using chemical pesticides and fertilizers and instead nurture the biodiversity of rice paddies. In Lebanon, a man named Kamal Mouzawak has ignited an initiative to preserve the food traditions of his country and promote sustainable agriculture. There are recently opened shepherd schools in Spain where a new generation of people learn how to care for the animals and the landscape, which in turn helps to keep rural regions alive, a vital part of a sustainable food system. In Quebec, a group of farmers are preserving the biodiversity of livestock in the Charlevoix by bringing the Canadienne cattle breed back from the brink of extinction and making delicious new cheeses in the process. In Italy, officials hand over land confiscated from Mafia bosses to the community to grow vegetables. In Nairobi, Kenya, young people are starting urban agriculture businesses and producing food to sell to their neighbors. And all across North America, there are grassroots efforts to create a sustainable alternative to the industrial food system, from rooftop farms to urban gardens to pollinator habitat restoration. Wherever I looked there were people working to make their corner of the world a better place for food. These are the stories that fill me with hope for the future despite that sinking feeling.

The cynic might say that when a journalist goes looking for stories about the rise of sustainable food systems, it’s not a coincidence that she finds people creating alternatives to industrial food. Sure, I found what I was looking for. However, the ubiquity of this movement — from the highlands of Yunnan to downtown Miami — indicates that there is something big happening.

It has led to the opening of farmers’ market after farmers’ market, urban garden after urban garden, community beehive after community beehive — one project inspiring the next and together equaling social change.

If you take a step back and thread these small efforts together, a larger, more robust picture of change emerges. This global movement has successfully lobbied for new food procurement policies at public institutions like universities and hospitals. It has motivated a new generation to take up sustainable agriculture, and new organizations such as FarmStart are educating them. The movement has encouraged politicians to plant vegetables at city hall, such as in Kamloops, British Columbia, and inspired citizens to create food-producing parks such as Seattle’s Beacon Food Forest. Grassroots social action has also helped preserve farmland — witness France’s Terre de Liens, which is raising money from concerned citizens to buy land to be farmed sustainability and kept in trust. It has led to the opening of farmers’ market after farmers’ market, urban garden after urban garden, community beehive after community beehive — one project inspiring the next and together equaling social change.

And this movement has pushed food policy issues into the global zeitgeist. There is a universal desire for good food and a concern for how this food is produced that cuts across culture and nationality. People have stopped waiting for government action on climate change and instead are trying to do something positive for the future.

Another person I met during my travels, a professor in Beijing, had helped a rice-growing village in her country become self-sufficient. After the small farmers, who grew organic rice, were connected with urbanites who wanted to pay for food they knew was safe from pollutants and contamination, villagers no longer needed to go to factories to earn money.

The night I spoke to the professor, she was despondent, feeling like what she had accomplished, in the grand scheme, was “very small. It doesn’t change life fundamentally.”

True, if you see each tiny effort in isolation, it does appear to be small. But taken together, these small efforts equal profound change — a positive response to the Anthropocene.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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