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Reflections on the Anthropocene

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“However these debates will unfold, the Anthropocene represents a new phase in the history of both humankind and of the Earth, when natural forces and human forces became intertwined so that the fate of one determines the fate of the other. Geologically, this is a remarkable episode in the history of this planet.”

This is a little too big to simply call “news.” Indeed, I can’t move beyond these words — especially that heart-stopper, “intertwined” — until I’m able to summon sufficient inner quiet and humility. Geologically, the paradigm has already shifted. How about spiritually?

The words are those of four geologists and climate scientists, including Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, writing in 2010 in the journal Environmental Science & Technology (and quoted at phys.org) — making the point that the human phenomenon has become, for better and for worse, essentially partnered with nature, a co-creator of the planet’s future.

This hypothesis has returned to public attention, as the International Geological Congress meets in Cape Town, South Africa, and a working panel has voted that the Anthropocene Epoch — a planetary shift to a new geological state of existence — be officially acknowledged by the world’s scientific community. That is to say, the planet has moved beyond what has been called the Holocene: some 12,000 years of climate stability, which emerged after the last ice age. In this window of opportunity, human civilization created itself and, in the process, seized hold of, and began changing, the planet’s geological infrastructure.

The current hypothesis is that the Anthropocene began, uh . . . about the time “Ozzie and Harriet” was hitting the airwaves, disposable ballpoint pens were finding their market niche, and the Baby Boomers were starting kindergarten. That is to say, the 1950s.

The primary cause of the geological shift, the Guardian reports, are “the radioactive elements dispersed across the planet by nuclear bomb tests, although an array of other signals, including plastic pollution, soot from power stations, concrete, and even the bones left by the global proliferation of the domestic chicken were now under consideration.”

None of this is good news. Short-sighted human behavior, from nuclear insanity to agribusiness to the proliferation of plastic trash, has produced utterly unforeseen consequences, including disruption of the climate that has nurtured our growth and becoming over the last dozen millennia. This is called recklessness. And mostly the Anthropocene is described with dystopian bleakness: a time of mass extinctions. A time of dying.

But I return to the words quoted above: “. . . the Anthropocene represents a new phase in the history of both humankind and of the Earth, when natural forces and human forces became intertwined. . .”

What I hear in the silence of these words is something far more resonant than mere pessimism or cynicism. I hear awareness. I hear urgency. I hear hope.

I hear the largest challenge that humanity has ever faced or imagined — a challenge that transcends religion, politics and science, indeed, everything we believe and everything we know, or think we know. This includes a belief in our own reckless immaturity.

Consider: “Human occupation is usually associated with deteriorated landscapes, but new research shows that 13,000 years of repeated occupation by British Columbia’s coastal First Nations has had the opposite effect, enhancing temperate rainforest productivity.”

The story, also at phys.org, talks about research data showing that the trees growing at sites formerly inhabited by the tribal peoples “are taller, wider and healthier than those in the surrounding forest,” thanks to various practices, including the burying of the remains of intertidal shellfish over thousands of years, enriching the soil. “For more than 13,000 years —500 generations—people have been transforming this landscape,” environmental scientist Andrew Trant is quoted as saying. “So this area that at first glance seems pristine and wild is actually highly modified and enhanced as a result of human behavior.”

There are many, many examples of how “primitive” cultures have been true stewards of their environment and enhanced its health and eco-diversity, but such stories are easily dismissed with a despairing shrug: This isn’t how the modern world works. Nor has eco-stewardship been the force that has brought on the Anthropocene. That has come about, rather, by a combination of extraordinary technological breakthroughs and cold indifference to their consequences: human evolution, you might say, outside the circle of life. But here we are nonetheless.

“. . . when natural forces and human forces became intertwined . . .”

It’s time to grow up. Simply looking at the news in the context of the ongoing geological shift puts things in a radically different perspective. I grab, almost at random, a recent story that slapped me in the face with its absurdity: San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick sends shockwaves across spectator America when he refuses to stand for the national anthem. Fans burn replicas of his jersey.

What I see in Kaepernick’s courageous act transcends even the racism he was protesting. The consciousness symbolized by the national anthem — that only part of this planet matters and all of it is available for our exploitation — is what has cluelessly ushered in the Anthropocene. We need to build a new world on the far side of that consciousness: on the far side of the flag, on the far side of the national anthem.

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Robert Koehler is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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