The Age of Breathing Underwater

That’s the title of a fantastic piece by Chris Turner in the October issue of The Walrus, a Canadian magazine. He turns the typical environmental tale of crisis on its head, suggesting that,

We need a new kind of story, a new template for our ecological philosophy “” one that acknowledges what we have lost and the emerging limits of what can be saved, but does not lament. To borrow the terminology of the linguist George Lakoff, we must first change the frame.

To do that, the author argues, we have to acknowledge that we are living in the Anthropocene epoch.

Turner’s story is one of the best examples of long-form environmental journalism that I’ve seen in years. An array of topics are crosscut: discussions of climate change, ocean acidification, the imminent death of the Great Barrier Reef, geo-engineering, sustainable communities, the history of scuba-diving, and a compelling, new ecological concept called resilience science.

That new branch of ecological science seeks to bridge both nature’s and society’s needs. It recognizes that complexity is inherent and change a constant. As Turner describes it,

Resilience embraces change as the natural state of being on earth. It values adaptation over stasis, diffuse systems over centralized ones, loosely interconnected webs over strict hierarchies. If the Anthropocene is the ecological base condition of twenty-first-century life and sustainability is the goal, or bottom line, of a human society within that chaotic ecology, then resilience might be best understood as the operating system..that encourages sustainability in this rapidly changing epoch.

Until last year, I was an editor for nearly a decade at Audubon magazine, America’s premier environmental magazine.  During that time, a common theme–almost a guiding philosophy–was to produce stories that at least gave people hope for a better future, instead of hammering a relentless narrative of degradation and destruction. I credit David Seideman, the editor-in-chief, for that piece of editorial guidance. He grew up with Audubon Magazine as a child, is an unabashed environmentalist but also a history buff. And he knew enough about that depressing environmental narrative (which had its place in the 1960s and 1970s) to realize that Audubon readers had grown weary of it by the 2000s.

True, plenty of stories in environmental magazines, including Audubon, still celebrate the innate wonders and beauty of nature. But the dark flipside always seems to be imminent or irreparable loss, usually because of some human action.  What Seideman did–and is still doing with a great team at Audubon–is is to focus the magazine more on how to fix longstanding environmental problems. (Trust me, this was no easy feat during George W. Bush’s two terms.) A shining example of this is the latest issue, which includes a special feature on green design.

But if I were creating an environmental magazine from scratch today, I would cede the “lament” and “inspirational” narratives to my colleagues and use the twin concepts of resilience and the Anthropocene as my foundation. Combined, these two concepts offer more than a rhetorical frame–they suggest the makings of a new paradigm, one that provides the “operating system” to grapple with the world’s increasing complexity and fragility.

If the science of resilience has arrived to guide us, then the stories showing us how should follow.

H/T: Resilience Science

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