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.