Craig Axford | Canada
Sometimes an idea comes along that just takes off. The suggestion that our conquest of the planet is now so thorough that we’ve left the Holocene behind and entered an entirely new geologic period, the Anthropocene, is a case in point. That we might be such effective niche builders that we’ve earned our own geologic age leaves me wondering whether I should feel awe-struck or pretentious.
The Anthropocene was first popularized by Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen in 2000. In 2016, an expert panel recommended to the International Geologic Congress (IGC) that they make the Anthropocene official. One proposed start date for this new age, though there are many others, is around 1950 with the advent of atmospheric nuclear weapons testing. So far, the IGC hasn’t reached a decision.
That we’ve had a profound impact upon the planet is hardly in dispute. From the most ardent developer to the most radical environmentalist virtually everyone agrees the earth is a far different place than it was just a couple of hundred years ago. It’s the quality rather than the scale of humanity’s impact that is in dispute.
Regardless, it’s a virtual certainty that much of our impact will leave a significant mark in the geologic record. Even if we were to vanish tomorrow, an alien arriving a million years from now would likely have little difficulty uncovering evidence of our existence. Future visitors from a nearby star system using nothing more sophisticated than the same methods and instruments we employ today would quickly find the spike in the atmospheric CO² that we’re responsible for, followed shortly thereafter by the introduction of other more exotic chemicals previously unseen. Digging just a few meters into the earth they would uncover frequent signs of our love affair with plastic. Unusually high concentrations of tar and concrete would indicate the presence of our vast transportation systems while the skyscrapers we’ve filled with office furniture and electronics could keep alien archaeologists busy for centuries.
But in spite of all of that, I’m still ambivalent about naming a geologic period after ourselves. These periods are only truly evident in retrospect and, so far at least, they’ve always spanned thousands of years at a minimum. If a comet were to slam into us right after the IGC announced it had made the Anthropocene official, in hindsight, its very short 68 years or so would appear to any possible distant investigator more like the K/T boundary marking the line between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods approximately 65 million years ago than as an entire age unto itself.
I fear we are once again overestimating our importance. Even the catastrophic events that brought the reign of the dinosaurs to an end, as calamitous as they were, fill only a few brief pages of the volumes written into the rocks that make up our planet’s history. Who are we to think our time on Earth will amount to much more than that, even if we are leaving behind some hitherto unseen debris in our wake?
But all those arguments aside, ultimately the reasons for my lack of enthusiasm for declaring this the Anthropocene are more philosophical and psychological than they are geological. We keep finding new ways to separate ourselves from nature. If we aren’t declaring ourselves in charge of it then we’re concluding we’re bringing an end to it. Either way, we see ourselves as somehow transcending nature rather than being embedded in it. The further we imagine ourselves to be from some idyllic Garden of Eden like setting the more removed from the natural world we feel we are.
This view of nature as a pristine place that humans have not gotten around to either conquering or ruining is both wrong and self-destructive. It’s wrong because humans, as much as any other species on the planet, are a product of nature. We’re animals. That we’re animals with a remarkable capacity to shape the world isn’t a reason to think we can either just let it be or enslave it.
We were having a huge impact on nature long before the Industrial Revolution. After our distant Stone Age ancestors first arrived in Australia and North America, megafauna on both continents soon went extinct. Having no impact on the environment, whether it comes in the form urbanization or our socially constructed definitions of wilderness, simply isn’t an option for us and it never was.
If we’re going to declare this the geologic age of humans, it should be because we finally recognize that leaving a mark is what our species does rather than an act of self-flagellation because we’ve failed to leave no mark at all. Ultimately, it was always going to end up being a question of what kind of record we were going to leave behind.
Unlike our ancestors, we have biologists, climatologists and ecologists closely monitoring the environmental changes we are creating and issuing warnings as we approach tipping points. Animals or plants at risk, if they have any sort of charisma at all, now make it to our Twitter feed or the evening news in a matter of days when new dangers come to light. If our power to destroy the world has grown immensely, so has our power to acquire and share knowledge that will enable us to live more sustainably.
Ironically, the same technologies now bringing us regular bulletins on the state of our planet are products of the very advances that have enabled our population to explode, doubled our average life expectancy, and created many of the materials that will leave traces in the geologic record long after we’ve likely vanished from the face of the Earth. We and the environment we’ve become so good at using to our advantage are both victims of our success. It seems humanity, like evolution itself, is a bag of mixed blessings.
But naming an era after ourselves probably isn’t the best way to build the kind of awareness and political will our times call for. To those inclined to see the planet as humanity’s oyster, it will sound more like a declaration of victory than a call to change their ways. To those worried about our most harmful behaviors, it’s more likely to produce a sense of resignation than generate support for something like a Green New Deal. Environmentalists have become very good at describing why we’ve been cast out of the Garden yet again, declaring “the end of nature” and writing premature obituaries for the Great Barrier Reef. Unfortunately, that kind of rhetoric is far more effective at generating anxiety and paralysis than it is positive results.
Nature is neither permanent nor “pristine” and it never was. It’s a process, not a condition or a thing. It runs according to laws that apply in cities as much as they do in areas uninhabited by humans. Raise the CO² level and the atmosphere naturally responds in predictable ways. Remove a keystone species from an ecosystem and the system will naturally react as it seeks a new dynamic equilibrium. A solar panel is as natural as a lump of coal, but the consequences of using these two sources of energy are very different.
Nature is always in flux. Neither absolute control nor removing ourselves from the picture are options that are open to us. Both approaches are based on faulty premises. Change is inevitable, but as a conscious species, we can intentionally and intelligently influence the changes taking place if we choose.
If we’re going to declare this the Anthropocene, then the geologic age of humanity needs to be about the potential for redemption rather than the “end of nature”. In her book, The Human Age, Diane Ackerman praises “Reconciliation Ecology”, a term “coined by Michael Rosenzweig in his book Win-Win Ecology”.
Ackerman writes, Reconciliation Ecology “suggests fence-mending and coexisting in harmony, not a wallop of blame.” It provides individuals, NGOs, and government at all levels a way forward that will protect biodiversity and clean the air. It offers us a way to change the narrative our mark in the geologic record tells from one of accelerating pollution and disruption into a story of a reversal toward sustainability and recovery. An Anthropocene that wrote into stone a tale of mistakes learned from and acts of redemption should be, to my way of thinking, the only one worth declaring.
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