The Anthropocene: It’s Not All About Us

260px-The_Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17Richard Heinberg writes at the Earth Island Journal:

Time to celebrate! Woo-hoo! It’s official: we humans have started a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene. Who’d have thought that just one species among millions might be capable of such an amazing accomplishment?

Let’s wait to stock up on party favors, though. After all, the Anthropocene could be rather bleak. The reason our epoch has acquired a new name is that future geologists will be able to spot a fundamental discontinuity in the rock strata that document our little slice of time in Earth’s multi-billion year pageant. This discontinuity will be traceable to the results of human presence. Think climate change, ocean acidification, and mass extinction.

Welcome to the Anthropocene: A world that may feature little in the way of multi-cellular ocean life other than jellyfish, and one whose continents might be dominated by a few generalist species able to quickly occupy new and temporary niches as habitats degrade (rats, crows, and cockroaches come to mind). We humans have started the Anthropocene, and we’ve proudly named it for ourselves, yet ironically we may not be around to enjoy much of it. The chain of impacts we have initiated could potentially last millions of years, but it’s a tossup whether there will be surviving human geologists to track and comment on it.

To be sure, there are celebrants of the Anthropocene who believe we’re just getting started, and that humans can and will shape this new epoch deliberately, intelligently, and durably. Mark Lynas, author of The God Species, contends the Anthropocene will require us to think and act differently, but that population, consumption, and the economy can continue to grow despite changes to Earth’s systems. Stewart Brand says we may no longer have a choice as to whether to utterly re-make the natural world; in his words, “We only have a choice of terraforming well. That’s the green project for this century.” In their e-book Love Your Monsters: Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene, Michael Schellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute say we can create a world where 10 billion humans achieve a standard of living allowing them to pursue their dreams, though this will only be possible if we embrace growth, modernization, and technological innovation. Similarly, Emma Marris argues in Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World that wilderness is gone forever, that we should all get used to the idea of the environment as human-constructed, and that this is potentially a good thing.

Is the Anthropocene the culmination of human folly? Or the commencement of human godhood? Will the emerging epoch be depleted and post-apocalyptic, or tastefully appointed by generations of tech-savvy ecosystem engineers? Environmental philosophers are currently engaged in what amounts to a heated debate about the limits of human agency. That discussion is especially engrossing because, as is usually the case in discussions about humans-and-wild nature, the conversation is all about us.

Read more here.

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  • kowalityjesus

    We’re like the plankton that discovered photosynthesis 2,300 mya that lead to the Oxygen Catastrophe, or the fungus that evolved the ability to break down lignin 300 mya ending the Carboniferous, or that one species in the paleozoic that caused many megafauna to become extinct. Actually I think that last one was us again.

  • Yūgen

    Heinberg is an excellent writer. His book memories and visions of paradise was phenomenal and in my opinion lends huge support to Wrights work.

    For some reason the links to the full article aren’t working at the moment for me?

  • Tchoutoye

    I propose a name change, from homo sapiens to homo vanus.

  • Ted Heistman

    its not all bad actually.

  • emperorreagan

    This is all garbage made up by the UN to push Agenda RU-486 where they take all of our guns, turn us into vegetarians, and make everyone build houses for turtles. Thank God that there’s 2 scientists working for the Heritage Foundation to tell us the truth: the earth runs on capitalism. Gaia has just been buying up CO2 and a wide variety of toxins while they’re cheap, she’s then going to turn a profit on them. It’s going to be a windfall that trickles down to everyone!

    • error403

      Green is the new beige.

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