The Anthropocene: Views From the Humanities


aTara Ahi
Staff Writer

University of California, Santa Barbara’s Interdisciplinary Humanities Center is currently hosting a series of talks and film screenings entitled The Anthropocene: Views From the Humanities. The series aims to cover a vast amount of interdisciplinary research and will provide insight into the current state of the global environment, as well as the necessary steps for the future.

A round table discussion was held on Thursday, Jan. 22, regarding the topic of “natural capital”—specifically, the concept of attaching monetary value to ecosystems and natural resources, and the resulting role it plays in human-environment relations.

Speakers included Peter Alagona, of the History and Environmental Studies departments; Sarah Anderson, of the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management; Ken Hiltner of the English and Environmental Studies departments and UCSB Sustainability champion; and Richard Widick of the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies. Elizabeth Heckendorn Cook, from the English Department, facilitated the roundtable.

The Anthropocene is a relatively new geologic term used to describe the era we have entered in which human activity definitively shapes the natural environment, including the climate, oceans, and underground Earth. As the influence grows and becomes farther-reaching, new questions about conservation and the inherent value of nature arise. This discussion shed light on the history of environmentalism, including driving actions and philosophies that have changed over time just as much as the environment has. The potential positive and negative consequences of tying economic principles to environmental aspects are explored through the lens of the fine arts and humanities.

The panel commenced with Elizabeth “E” Cook stating, “We now know what nature is worth—sort of.” Calculating the economic value of the ocean, for example, is no small feat. However, there are arguments that determining the monetary value of ecosystems and natural resources is crucial to cost-benefit analysis and ascertaining environmental risk, and will have a role in projects of corporations worldwide.

According to Nature magazine, the estimated economic value of 17 ecosystems for 16 biomes is about $16-54 trillion a year, with an average of $33 trillion a year—and that was in 1997. A 2011 study produced much higher numbers. For reference, global GNP is about $18 trillion a year. Naturally, these numbers fluctuate due to the ever-changing natural environment and the inherent fungibility of money and margin for error within the study. The point is that we cannot afford to replace these resources.

The beginning of the conservation movement saw an emphasis on monetary values as well as the intrinsic value of nature, a versatile philosophy geared for both philosophical and political audiences, Alagona explained. By the time the 70s and 80s came around, a contemporary version had emerged, one that focused on intrinsic value of natural resources and the philosophy of what nature means to humanity. In fact, this anti-market ideology was incorporated into the language of the law, such as the Endangered Species Act of 1973, which discouraged use of economic factors in argument even when deemed relevant.

The most recent cohort of conservation biologists has developed a different approach because, as the panelist frankly stated, “conservation of the last 40 years hasn’t worked.” This has led to backlash from traditional conservationists.

The key seems to be adding layers to traditional methods rather than replacing them, while innovating novel approaches to preservation and treatment. The clashing of philosophies regarding national capital can pose a problem, however, over the ethical question of converting public value to private value.

Panelist Sarah Anderson considered two different perspectives regarding the role of natural capital here. The idea of it seems to prove practical and useful in situations when two alternative approaches are being compared, and a dollar conversion can help balance a scale. Additionally, people may tend to respond to prices more—incentive is a key part of the entire movement, so the concept can be effective, whether it involves putting a price on carbon or what a developer has to pay for what they do to a wetland, she said.

On the other hand, individuals do not always ultimately make the best decisions with statistics in hand. While the concept of natural capital has been described as an “illusion” by some, it is argued that any mobilizing power it holds bestows value.

The idea of natural capital is scoffed at by some scholars in the field, and remains the topic of much debate from the local level to UN climate talks. Some assert that natural capital actually has zero inherent value, and only instances of human attention focusing and attaching value to a “resource” is what gives the term weight. There are also some serious questions asked about the validity of an economic association with so broad a subject.

One panelist raised the question of whether we should be willing to accept the inequality and risk in the markets for natural resources that the natural capitalists are proposing: “What would a market crash in the air market look like? Or a global crisis? It happens in all the other markets. One percent of the world’s population has half the wealth of planet Earth. And they’re presenting their new idea of ‘natural capital.’”

For more information about the IHC series, visit