Patrick in the Anthropocene

Vintage St. Patrick's Day card | Dave | Flickr

Image source: Dave (CC BY-ND 2.0 Deed)

Ah, March! Relief. Renewal. Green beer, so we can get merry and forget about the ancestors.

U.S. canal and railroad developers put Irish migrants to work in the 1850s. Workers who succumbed to injuries, exhaustion, and disease were buried without ceremony. In Malvern, Pennsylvania, grave researcher Frank Watson spoke of teenaged and adult workers buried in a human “trash heap.” A Chicago-area mass-grave marker observes:

“They arrived sick and penniless, and took hard and dangerous jobs building the Chicago & Alton Railroad. Known but to God, they rest here in individual anonymity – far from the old homes of their heirs – yet forever short of the new homes of their hopes.”

Some years ago I came across my father’s family name in an old news story about Irish workers buried near a railway. And I wondered: Were we related? My father’s family swore they came from French nobility, not from the shanty Irish like your mother.

But JFK became president the year I was born and the narrative was bound to shift. JFK too had forebears who fled the potato famine. (We say “famine” so we can forget it was deliberate starvation. As Sinéad O’Connor reminded everyone, Ireland’s food was shipped to England; Irish people caught eating anything except potatoes could be shot dead.)

The Fitzgeralds and Kennedys first worked in Boston as common tradespeople. Eventually, they’d run shops and bars, and make successful bids for political posts. Who, in the all-encompassing quest for Standard of Living, had time to look back?

Noel Ignatiev explored the way Irish Catholics climbed up the U.S. class ladder in How the Irish Became White. That book might have been a user’s manual for my forebears as it explains how they did in fact become white. Meanwhile, JFK publicly vowed that the USA would be first on the moon. And it was. JFK’s key project leader was Wernher von Braun, who’d developed Nazi Germany’s “vengeance weapons”—the V-2 rockets.

Humans had entered some new phase, some kind of hyper-self-domestication. Trains weren’t built so much to move ordinary people as to deliver freight and luxury goods. Apollo 11 got resources that could have funded vital social networks. Gil Scott-Heron called it. Making a nation (for some) Number One eclipsed real values.

But getting back to the shamrocks and beer…Now comes Saint Patrick’s Day in all its whiskey-soaked and dollar-shop green glory.

A Star Performance

Patrick—the bishop Patricius—claimed credit for converting Ireland to Catholicism in the 5th century:

“Never before did they know of God except to serve idols and unclean things. But now, they have become the people of the Lord, and are called children of God. The sons and daughters of the leaders of the Irish are seen to be monks and virgins of Christ!”

Now, if the Anthropocene Awards are ever produced for star-quality performances, nominate Patrick. Why bother to learn from others when you can stamp out their knowledge instead? And this was superhero-level stamping-out. Unless, more likely, Patrick is just a diversion, superimposed on history to blot out the druidic take on the universe.

The Collins Dictionary traced the root meaning of the word druid to the term oak-wise. We need more oak wisdom.

But a 5th-century Roman Catholic “patron saint of Ireland” had no use for it. And in a later century—Sinéad told us all about this, too—the British pope Adrian IV handed Ireland to England, setting the stage for the British to eventually starve the Irish people and ban the Irish language, forcing them to leave, die, or live with no memory of their cultural story.

Of course, the Anthropocene epoch is riddled with crimes against humanity; who was Patrick, but one of history’s common tormentors? Patrick, like any other conqueror, could have championed a different route, guided by the connections humans knew before the times of nations and borders, before we authorized some to routinely confine and control others.

Point of Contention

Naomi Klein, a few years ago, objected to the term Anthropocene:

“Diagnoses like this erase the very existence of human systems that organised life differently: systems that insist that humans must think seven generations in the future; must be not only good citizens but also good ancestors; must take no more than they need and give back to the land in order to protect and augment the cycles of regeneration.”

So at essence, Klein has a “Not all humans…” take. There’s an idea that indigenous communities have no connection to human-driven extinctions or geological crises. Is that so? Indigenous humans set out to domesticate living communities more than 10,000 years ago.

Now, a quest to declare the Anthropocene an official geological epoch has stalled as experts debate just how far back they’ll pin the starting point. The official working group focuses on measurable, physical evidence of human-caused changes—microplastics, coal, pesticides—and situates the start of the Anthropocene in 1952, pointing to the global plutonium fallout from nuclear weapon testing.

Wait, though. We were deep into the Anthropocene by the 1950s. I Love Lucy was already on in 1952. It was the year Hasbro unveiled Mr. Potato Head, that breakthrough use of plastic which turned children into TV advertising consumers. The first patent for a bar code product was issued that year. In 1952, according to a study guide from the Michigan Farm Bureau: “The first Herringbone parlor is used. This helped farmers move a row of cows in together for milking in one clean space.”

Cows, you might remember, are the descendants of some of Earth’s most formidable animals—the aurochs. Living in their natural habitat, carrying out their evolution on their terms, was their birthright. But we humans developed breeding technologies to make them smaller, turn them into our underlings, fence them in, kill them, eat their flesh and drink what we could pull from their teats. By the 1600s we had killed off the last of their free-living ancestors.

We could say humans entered our current, late stage of hyper-self-domestication by the time petkeeping became popular, back in the Elizabethan era. The Anthropocene was fully fledged much earlier. Never mind. As my friend Patricia Fairey emailed, “At the current rate the Anthropocene won’t last long.”

And now, the vernal equinox approaches. Let’s turn off our computers, go out to the oaks, and welcome it.

Lee Hall holds an LL.M. in environmental law with a focus on climate change, and has taught law as an adjunct at Rutgers–Newark and at Widener–Delaware Law. Lee is an author, public speaker, and creator of the Studio for the Art of Animal Liberation on Patreon.