You probably won’t ever hear the term “Anthropocene” uttered during the upcoming U.S. presidential debates, but it refers to what will define civilization (and its politics) for the coming future.
To understand what is meant by it, I invite you to head over to the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme’s (IGCP) website “Welcome to the Anthropocene” and explore. A combination of precise writing and satellite imagery illustrates the idea of “a planet transformed by humanity”; an explanation of a concept of the magnitude of the Anthropocene seems to really benefit from the rich, multimedia experience offered by this website. If you click on the gallery, take a look at the Amazon deforestation, for example, and see how we have created bald spots on an entire continent.
Does the might of humanity’s hand on the planet bear repeating? Our collective presence is a force upon the shape and chemistry of the planet, upon the entire earth system; its influence is profoundly perceivable in the dynamic planetary biogeochemical interplay whereupon life takes place. We live in an age in which, in the words of a journalist covering the Anthropocene, we are “terraforming terra herself,” in which the repercussions of civilization reach veritably geologic dimensions.
It’s important to develop an awareness of humanity as an agent of change in the fundamental biological, chemical and physical dynamics that underpin the conditions that give rise to life on this planet. The Anthropocene is “a decisive break from what came before,” as the IGCP describes it. Humanity in its imagining of civilization never really contemplated a systemic involvement with its enveloping earth system, never in the manner, complexity or magnitude science today continues to confirm we are acting upon it. So far, civilization has developed into an unwitting force of nature, it’s growth largely inconsiderate of its impact upon the environment within which it exists.
Humanity is the first self-aware component of the geologic makeup of the planet, but we have scarcely contemplated or internalized this role, let alone behaved in a conscientious manner given this awareness. Of course, this role, this enlarged awareness of ourselves is a fairly new phenomenon in our intellectual landscape. Considering it, I find that the Anthropocene context places the moral imperative of specie survival upon civilization as a whole. That is to say, our newly identified and poorly understood role as a force of nature begs the question: can humanity steer civilization to maintain a viable home planet for the next 50 years? For the next 100? For the next 1000? We should hope to do so, for as long as we can, as we always have. We must also think about how the environment will shape our civilization, both now that we so blindly affect it and in the future, when we might do so more deliberately. We’d do well to begin to critique and shape civilization considering the way it dynamically exerts pressure on the systems on which it existentially depends.
There’s an urgency to this matter and a looming sense of tragedy to our willful ignorance; this year, Arctic sea ice reached its lowest level on record beating the previous low in 2007 by an area “about the size of the state of Texas”, as the National Snow & Ice Data Center reports.
Peter Wadham, Professor of Ocean Physics at Cambridge University and a leading expert on the Arctic, predicts the final collapse of Arctic sea ice “within four years,” or an ice-free Arctic in the summer months by 2016. Commenting on this, Elizabeth Kolbert points to how, despite the undeniable significance of this issue, Paul Ryan’s workout plan of choice “has received three times as much television coverage as the ice loss.” Moreover, she notes that “the only times Mitt Romney has brought up the topic of climate change, it has been to mock President Obama for claiming, back in 2008, that he was going to try to do something about it,” and that Barack Obama has done little more than shyly acknowledged the issue during his campaign. If we are to predict from the behavior of the leadership of the free world, civilization is still far from owning responsibly its role as a force of nature; as Kolbert puts it, “by the time of the 2016 debates, the Arctic sea ice may already be history.”
Or as Samuel L. Jackson might put it, humanity better wake the fuck up to the Anthropocene.