Anthropo-scene #9: Sense, Sensors, Sensitivity

In 1928 Alfred Döblin, one of Germany’s great authors, wrote a book that in my eyes should become part of the official intellectual ancestry of the Anthropocene. It’s called “Das Ich über der Natur”, the Self Above Nature. But it’s not about human arrogance and domination of Earth, quite the opposite. Döblin describes ways how to immerse ourselves in Nature.

In this book, he anticipated what Paul Crutzen did in the year 2000, when he coined the word Anthropocene. Human presence, Döblin said, is about creating sense in the world. Döblin didn’t say we are the only life form that creates sense, but he believed that spreading sense was central to the human endeavor. As science historian Jürgen Renn has famously said, the Anthropocene is a process that reflects about itself. And increasingly, this reflection is supported by thousands, and soon millions of sensing stations, like carbon flux measurement systems, biodiversity plots, oceanic buoys – and weather stations, like the one you see here from Berlin’s Botanic Garden, which I visit frequently. Through these sensors technology helps us understand the unfolding of the Anthropocene. Science is building up a new type of sensory system for planet Earth, an Internet of All Things, not only of commercial products, but a system that helps us listen to stones, plants, animals in a deeper way – if we are open for that. Will this not only increase data volumes, but also our sensitivity towards what happens to all other life forms we share the planet with?

By moving into the Anthropocene, we make the planet more sensitive to our actions, and that’s why the Anthropocene should be the Age of Sensitivity. As our collective behaviors shape a new world, a lot if not everything depends on whether we humans learn to extend our sensitivity way beyond the human sphere.

Western civilization has so far treated the planet and it’s non-human inhabitants like zombies, as unconscious passive things, as neuroscientist Giulio Tononi has pointed out in his amazing book “Phi”. He describes how all living beings have certain kinds of consciousness and speculates about a new type of future research instrument that allows to actually see the world in terms of consciousness. The vacuum in space would shrink to nothing whereas insects or owls would become gigantic. In my new book “The Analogue Revolution”, I develop this thought further and speculate about another instrument, the Anthroposcope, that allows us to see how animals and plants see, perceive and understand us humans. Berlin’s Botanic Garden was built as a geographical model of the world and harbors plants from all continents. It would be a good location for the first Anthroposcope.

This is the continuation of a 10-part series where renowned journalist, author and biologist Christian Schwägerl discusses the many ramifications of the concept of the “Anthropocene”.

Read the whole Anthropo-scene series.

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