A brief history of the Anthropocene and the pulling back of our sights

According to many scientists, we have entered a new geological era named the Anthropocene. Although this isn't the official name of the epoch, chances are high that it will be accepted next August 2016 by the Royal Geological Society of London. It is no harm then to start thinking what such an event could entail for us as the word "Anthropocene" has been around for at least the past twenty years. I do not wish to compile a scientific article here but gather bits and pieces for us to reflect.

Also, before getting started I shall declare my non-naive intent first. The degree of difficulty is very high because we must use the products, the tools, the results of progress to put a discourse together. Most of these items quite often are problematic in terms of resource use, poor recycled second life and last but least, planned obsolescence which means compulsive consumption. Thing is I am myself using an aluminum laptop, plugged in an electric outlet, enabling a myriad of server nodes somewhere, taking data back and forth as well as nuclear reactors in order to write these few lines. These many hiatuses cause a lot of disorder.

In my eyes, we can't go out of all this. We shall feel earthbound, "earthians" rather than humans with the Anthropocene. To illustrate this pulling back of our sights, did you know about the satellite junk in the outer space ? That is maybe one great visual information to start with.

Arte's Le dessous des cartes TV show, december 28th 2013. The pictures show satellites and debris hovering over the Earth. 

 

Back on Earth, we can contemplate the data shown on the plots below :

Will Steffen (et. al.), The Anthropocene: From Global Change to Planetary Stewardship, AMBIO (2011) 40:739–761, Royal Swedish Academy of Science, 2011, p. 742.

 

We can observe the unequivocal growing trends, some of them are exponential. Beside the trends the records all start in 1750 because scientists believe the Anthropocene began when James Watt perfected the steam engine of Thomas Newcomen (ca. 1750). The intensification trend past the 1900s is unequivocal in most cases and toward the year 2000, the curves mostly go vertical. I wonder what a plot in the 2000-2010 decade would look like... Exponential growth? No doubt. Signs not to say proofs are stacking up at a very rapid rate today that we have become a (in fact the) major geological agent.

Now to corroborate our visual investigation of the scientific literature,

Will Steffen, The Anthropocene: From Global Change to Planetary Stewardship, Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, AMBIO (2011) 40.

 

Simple math done :

  • 1900 volume : 180 mmˆ3
  • 1950 volume : 720 mmˆ3
  • 2011 volume : 110 952 mmˆ3

The 1900-1950 is a 4-fold increase but the 1900-2011 is a daunting 616-fold increase. This gives a good insight of how we have transformed the Earth. And basically we have transformed it to such an extent that :

"(...) 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."
Paul Crutzen, Will Steffen, Mark Williams, Jan Zalasiewicz, « The New World of the Anthropocene », ''Environmental Science and Technology'', Vol. 44, n°7, 2010, p. 2231.

 

These words were used by scientists, not philosophers or poets as I often have to argue. Yes there's an intertwining all but romantic. The Earth – often named Gaia after James Lovelock – answers back. Also, if we reflect on the quote from Paul Crutzen above for a longer period of time... It marks the disappearance of the old nature/culture dichotomy since there's a "intertwining" of "natural forces" and "human forces". Nature/culture has been the main structure of thought at the basis of most our "modern" science. The distance we wanted to maintain between these two categories has vanished now.

As a consequence, 17th centuries dualisms decrease and scientists are now studying phenomena we have ourselves created. Taking that into account, philosopher Bruno Latour thinks objectivity is lost (see Agency at the Age of the Anthropocene). Of course, we cannot recognize these changes sitting in a sofa in a gentrified neighborhood downtown. The city walls disperse the growing tremors. But when you go to places such as Iceland, often seen (and sold) as pristine, also getting off the main roads, one has the strong feeling we equals geology itself. I came to that conclusion back in June 2014 doing field work in the country.

It feels good to have such a power in our hands right? Industrial power, intellectual power, technological power, transport power, etc… But today the question is how we use every single component of it. Each of our gestures have consequences, and with an expected 9 billion population on the horizon 2050, our common realm will become increasingly tighter with less and less options but to slow down. Let's start doing something right now.

- by Yogan Muller