film science sustainability

Welcome to the anthropocene

The idea that the earth has entered the ‘anthropocene’ – the age of man – is gaining credibility. It’s the subject of Mark Lynas’ book The God Species (reviewed here). National Geographic have run with it, and now there’s a new campaign to educate people about it. It’s called ‘welcome to the anthropocene‘, and this is their video.

Personally, I’m a bit conflicted about the term and I can’t quite put my finger on why it makes me uncomfortable. There’s something self-congratulatory about it, putting ourselves at the centre and defining everything else around us. It gives us the illusion of power over the planet, when we are clearly out of control. The fancy name also hides the fact that our impact is overwhelmingly negative. Given that our planetary tinkering is pretty much a slow and complicated form of collective self-destruction, shouldn’t we speak as plainly about it as we can? And given how long the earth’s cycles run for, it may be a little premature to be calling the next one ours so soon. Maybe be should wait another 10,000 years to be sure.

On the other hand, there’s no denying that humanity is having a massive impact on our homeworld. I still regularly hear people deny that, and suggest that it is arrogant to suggest that we could change the planet. Science says otherwise. You don’t have to know much chemistry to know that small changes can have a big impact. Some pesticides can kill fish at concentrations of 0.04 parts per million. It’s not so crazy to suggest that changing the CO2 content of the atmosphere by a matter of hundreds of parts per million could be significant. Planetary systems are held in a fine balance and we have shown that we’re capable of altering them. In which case we might as well acknowledge the changes, and naming them might be a good way of owning up to it – like Bill McKibben’s somewhat clunky renaming of the planet, Eaarth.

If the idea of the anthropocene makes us face up to our responsibilities, then I suppose it’s useful. But I’m not sure if I like it.

11 comments

  1. Jeremy – great stuff! I would like to post this today as a guest blog article on our jusTice blog and give you a little bit of introduction and profile to our contacts – please let me know if that’s ok, thanks!

  2. As it turns out, I just posted this paragraph on my blog today, which seems relevant to also put here:

    “There seems to me to be a misunderstand claiming a particularly Christian character holding back such understanding [i.e. of the Anthropocene], namely, the idea that it is somehow arrogant to think that puny little humans can have such large, planet-wide effects. Yet true humility is really an extension of the virtue of honesty. There is no virtue in pretending to be something other than we are. Romans 12.3 says “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought” but does not go on to say “but think of yourselves as lowly worms, capable of nothing and worth even less”. Instead, the second half of the verse is “but rather think of yourself with sober judgment”. Sober judgement is what is needed. We have all kinds of reasons to be humble – from dust we came and to dust we return – yet let us acknowledge that various historically novel quantitative developments over the last few decades have brought us into a qualitatively new relationship to the rest of the natural world. To do so is not arrogance, but sober judgement. And when we notice that this relationship is increasingly one of destruction, then the potential for arrogant boasting of our powers is quickly chastised.”

    PS We don’t need to go to fish and pesticides for a 0.04 ppm toxicity. Botulinum toxin (Botox) is lethal at “1 ng/kg when introduced intravenously[3] and 3 ng/kg when inhaled. This means that, depending on the method of introduction into the body, a mere 90–270 nanograms of botulinum toxin could be enough to kill an average 90 kg (200 lb) person, and four kilograms of the toxin, if evenly distributed, would be more than enough to kill the entire human population of the world.” This is a concentration of 0.000001-3 ppm in the body (if I’ve done the calculation correctly).

    1. Yes, the arrogance line is one I’ve seen a few times, and as you say, there’s a certain dishonesty to it, dressed up as humility. I usually hear it from American christian climate skeptics, who are also the most likely people to say that God has given us dominion over creation. But you if you have dominion, you also have responsibility.

      Not sure why the fish example was the first to spring to mind. Nature is full of delicate balances, in physics as well as biology and chemistry.

  3. “There’s something self-congratulatory about it, putting ourselves at the centre and defining everything else around us.”
    I prefer to read it as self-accusatory. Those who have proposed the name are under no illusions about the largely negative effects of the changes being witnessed. I find it a very useful opening ideal to get discussion going about the radical historical novelty of our ecological predicament. “Eaarth” and other variants (“The Great Disruption” – Paul Gilding; “The Bottleneck Years” – various) all sound a little too headline-y.

  4. As is often the case, I’m not sure who is confusing the issues, but surely it would be very difficult to be under any illusions and so surely Byron, we have indeed acknowledged our new position. Hence, this is surely not where the question of arrogance is being laid? The self-accusatory arrogance is surely being suggested in the present assured confidence that we can control the Earth? Our boasting has not been ‘chastised’. Has Byron misinterpreted Jeremy’s words or is it me?
    We have in part brought ourselves to this position due to our ignorance. Science confidently asserts that it can be a God and juggle the proportions accurately. I wonder if it will ever know in necessary time, even half of the gross interplay of so many factors over the longer time. For example, I heard on the radio the other day that GM food has been around now for, was it about 10 years? and nothing terrible has happened yet!. But what amount of GM have we done in that time which would be likely to have any such dire consequences? How can we use such small scale, short term examples as any confident reassurance? (And we still have those arguing that we can continue with growth).

    1. I don’t think there’s any confusion, really. The idea of the anthropocene is of course self-accusatory, and I don’t think it’s used boastfully in a deliberate sense and certainly not by those who are actively using the term. That’s just my own feelings about it.
      As for science, I think it’s an ongoing thing. We’re constantly learning more, and our new understanding is constantly creating new problems and constantly solving other ones. We’re ahead of ourselves in some areas, and trailing in others. Ignorance is part of it, as we can never be entirely sure of the consequences of our actions. The other part of it is wisdom. How are we using our knowledge? Is it being used to benefit everyone or a select few? Is it being used to empower or to exercise power over others? GM faces those same questions at the moment. It’s already out there, so whether or not we agree with it, it’s now part of our reality. The questions now are all about who gets to use the technology and how.

  5. I reckon it was confusion now followed by good diplomacy.
    I think the question is, as usual, one of trade-offs. Is it (anything), producing more negatives than positives. Some things we can decide after the proof of the pudding, but weighing the scales of the earth’s systems, pulling here and pushing there – I really hate to be pessimistic but!!! So my concern, since humanity never really had any choice, is how MUCH control of nature? WHEN technology, no doubt, fails us (pessimism again?) will there be sufficient healthy nature left to fall back on and to avoid calamity on an appalling scale? You can guess my thought – but then, who am I?- not said without humility. We will of course look at the other more immediate questions and perhaps we could come to our senses in time? Hmmm!

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