I believe that humanity will be defined in its next iteration by its coming to terms with the Anthropocene.
The term “Anthropocene” might have gained footing in the public consciousness in May of 2011, when The Economist featured it prominently. Per its original proponents, Anthropocene is “the recent age of man”, or the proposed geological era after the Holocene. Roughly put, it is the recognition that humanity is a force of nature, one mighty enough to bring change to the geology of our planet.
The Economist lists the myriad ways in which human activity is changing the planet (the film Home by Yann Arthus-Bertrand provides one of the best visual testimonies of the magnitude of this change). We are seeing the chemistry of the air, the land, and the oceans change drastically; we can topple mountains and carve up the geography in search of energy stores millions of years in the making. We have the ability to make a Dubai. If we were to extinguish ourselves and a future geologist were to dig up what remained of us, our fossil record would look distinctly different from that of the previous era. Yet, we still don’t understand our power
We do, in fact, have an incidence on the climate, something throughout the history of civilization that was best left to the gods. But we aren’t gods. We’re somewhat of a cancer upon the broader Earth system: We are a force of unparalleled growth now sizable enough to interact with the largest forces of nature. We’re far from understanding and internalizing the meaning of this.
On July 12, 2012, satellite observations determined that 97% of Greenland’s ice sheet had experienced thawing; this occurred after it was observed on July 8 that only 40% of the ice sheet had undergone thawing. As shown by analysis of ice core samples, such rapid melting across the ice sheet hasn’t occurred since 1889. This is thought to be a periodic event and, in any case, there are complex mechanisms behind this occurrence, but how might this have interacted with our warmer reality? This clash takes place on a geological plane between the Earth’s systems and everything human activity has exacerbated or caused is what gives rise to the Anthropocene, a new geological era.
A shifting geology implies change in the environmental context under which all of life as we know it today came to be. Any given form of life is possible only within a complex ecological context, and it is no different for human beings, despite all the material abstractions we’ve created that disconnect us from the environment we inhabit. Life may have the capacity to adapt, but what we are facing is entirely new. If we consider the degree of habitat loss we are causing, the mass extinction underway and the sheer loss of biodiversity, then it seems we are really pushing the boundary for adaptation.
Furthermore, by relinquishing the balance and relative stability under which civilization flourished, we are also putting at risk humanity’s own cultural riches. Beyond the loss of cultural diversity, examples of which abound, we are unwittingly shifting away from the balance that makes the very systems that sustain life possible, thus putting ourselves at risk at a foundational level of our existence. The Earth has a limit in its carrying capacity and in this respect we are also pushing boundaries; we face in our interaction with the wider planet a massive tragedy of the commons, one for which we are far from settling on a solution.
The case is that humanity, in its endeavor, has scarcely contemplated its own existence as a fundamental risk to the natural context that is essential to its survival. We are, tragically, terribly ill fit to do so. Paraphrasing Robert Gifford, a psychologist who studies the behavioral barriers to combating climate change, Beth Gardiner writes,
“We have trouble imagining a future drastically different from the present. We block out complex problems that lack simple solutions. We dislike delayed benefits and so are reluctant to sacrifice today for future gains. And we find it harder to confront problems that creep up on us than emergencies that hit quickly.”
In her report on climate psychology, Gardiner presents the idea that the mental habits with which we deal with everyday living “make it difficult to engage with the more abstract, global dangers posed by climate change.” We’ve evolved to succeed at amassing energy and transforming it to suit our purposes, yet while our most learned warn of dire and uncertain consequences if we continue to disregard the issue of climate change, for the most part, mankind carries on as it has before by means of civilization’s inertia.
Nevertheless, we are inevitably facing this shifting reality. Given the profundity of the effects of our species' activity, we need to reexamine civilization itself in order to procure a viable future. Everything we’ve figured out so far has occurred within the context of the Holocene; let us now inhabit and take responsibility for the new geological era that takes our name.
This article is the second installment in a four part series on climate change. The first installment can be found here.