Bob Sandford, The Anthropocene Disruption

What tone ought one to strike, when trying to talk about the end of the world?

If you’re not on social media, a useful term you might not be aware of is “tone-policing”: essentially, the allegation that You’re Saying It Wrong And People Think You’re A Bad Person.

Often, it just means that the person making the allegation doesn’t like someone’s tone, even if at times it’s more theoretical than that. When there’s the chance that social justice is involved, however, whether it’d be race, gender, nationality, class, or whatever might arguably qualify as “punching down,” well, there’s a good chance of a fuss.

An odd sub-genre of this debate, though, outside the social-media bubble, has to do with climate change. You’ll often hear the claim that we shouldn’t scare people, or they’ll give up; that we need to focus on hope, because otherwise everyone’s despair would be our fault and it’d be our fault that they feel disempowered enough to keep driving Hummers and whatnot.

In particular, writer-scientist-activists like Michael Mann have argued that it’s important not to fall into “doom and gloom” communications about climate. As author Robert William Sandford briefly notes in his book The Anthropocene Disruption, though, environmental psychologists haven’t seen that hearing very bad climatic news has led people to the kind of defeatism feared by Mann and others. Sandford’s experience means he’s eminently qualified to discuss these things, too; among other things, he’s a senior advisor on water issues for the Interaction Council, which includes more than 30 former heads of state from countries like Norway, Canada, and the US.

Fundamentally, Sandford refuses to give oxygen to these sorts of worries. If unchecked, the current period, referred to colloquially and in some academic circles as the Anthropocene, will render the planet uninhabitable for humanity. Already, the planet is becoming uninhabitable for the majority of humanity, if we were to try to sustain our recent and current trajectory. The geologists may not think the term “Anthropocene” is geologically meaningful, in the same way that “Holocene” or “Pliocene” is meaningful, but Sandford’s view is that for the rest of us, “Anthropocene” helps us to grasp that without significant effort, especially at governmental and corporate levels, we’re doomed.

Sandford is at his best in explaining the ways in which we’re nearly doomed (or possibly just doomed, period), and explaining the ways in which we need to shift our perceptions so that we might understand possible ways forward. Early on, for example, he provides a very clear short discussion of “hydrological stationarity” (p10): basically, the sense that a “hundred-year flood” can only be calculated in stable climatic conditions. If the conditions aren’t stable, then we lose our predictive powers, and with that our ability to build a stable culture or civilization. If we can’t predict floods or fires or tidal storm surges or extreme weather, we’ll have no choice but to change, and change unpredictably or radically. Sandford’s point is that we need to understand all these corollary catastrophes, because otherwise we cannot prepare for the world in which we’re already living.

Regardless, it’s kind of an odd little book, The Anthropocene Disruption, as some other reviewers have noted. I really appreciated hearing Sandford’s thoughts, especially given his expertise, and to that extent, it fits well into Rocky Mountain Books' series Manifestos. Most of the book, though, is actually his thoughts on other writers’ thoughts, and I found that less useful.

To be clear, I’m a fan of Jan Zwicky, a conflicted admirer of Robert Bringhurst and David Wallace-Wells, and not quite new to Jem Bendell, the four of whom get the most extended treatment from Sandford in The Anthropocene Disruption. As a long-confirmed reading nerd, generally I’m here for metacommentary. But when the book’s central claim is that it’s already almost entirely too late, I don’t see why Sandford’s giving us metacommentary rather than commentary tout court.

In other words, I take Sandford’s point that we’re saying it wrong, and that in consequence, some of us are bad people. But … is he also saying it wrong?

It’s less niche than Zwicky and Bringhurst’s Learning to Die: Wisdom in the Age of Climate Crisis, and more “we can do this” than Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth. Still, it’s a tough read for someone not already inside this conversation, and I wish I felt like it added more than I do.

Coming up soon in my reading stack is Chris Turner’s How to Be a Climate Optimist: Blueprints for a Better World. Maybe that’ll help, but I've been eyeing it skeptically since before it was published, so....


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