A friend who thinks of me as more scientific than she is has asked that I comment on geological eras in order to orient proposals that we label our own impact on the planet as unique. The Ice Age (aka Pleistocene) is said to have ended when continental glaciers melted back about 13,000 years ago.
Geologists called the short intervening era the Holocene. Some now propose that humans are changing Nature so much that we should label our era the Anthropogene. This will hopefully initiate wide-ranging discussion as to when the new era began, what it did, and what it implies. It could be a fascinating exercise in updating world views for everyone.
Given that most of us are specialists in one area or another, the first hurdle to that broad discussion I hope for is the tendency to see the task as simply one of coining “a stratigraphic signal” to end the Holocene and begin the Anthropocene. This would be preemptive, more clerical than reflective. But it is to be expected after our long affair with reductionism as preferred scientific methodology. It has already been suggested that the advent of the Industrial Revolution, about 1800, is a suitable marker.
That would discount too much neglected history. Our ancestors were hunter-gatherers for some 200,00O years, wandering afoot on all the continents. We were part of Nature because our numbers were low, and our technologies simple, mostly extensions of our hands. We were semi-nomadic and lived off biological surpluses. Except for the use of fire to modify vegetation, our environmental imprint was perhaps ephemeral.
It was the invention of agriculture, mostly between 5000 and 10,000 years ago, that began separating us from Nature, and led to grandiose notions of our having been put in charge of the creation, however that originated. We then had no clue to evolutionary emergence, so we invented causes, left and right.
Agriculture’s food production enabled more people to survive. More people demanded more food production, so world environments were drastically altered by cutting forests and draining wetlands to allow more agriculture. This truncated the accumulated checks and balances that tended to soften climatic change, at first locally, then regionally, now globally, as global warming suggests. As Barry Commoner pointed out a generation ago, everything is connected to everything else.
As human populations grew, so did problems of organization and decision-making, since we differ so. Is religion a social tactic to help keep us together? In The West we should be more mindful of the likelihood that Christianity was the bureaucratic imposition of Roman Emperors, probably to mitigate the problem of too many people in a climatically marginal Mediterranean environment.
With agriculture, a gradual urbanization of the population also grew. This gave human ingenuity more vent. As economic activity and accumulation systems grew in favored environments, some learned to monopolize surpluses. Usury was born. The Church contained this at first, but the 16th Century’s Reformation broke through that constraint, and Capitalism was born. A free-for-all, so-called.
A chief problem of this economic mode, abetted by economists, is that it discounts innate value in most of Nature. Nature, we should recall, is the continuing creative synthesis of accumulated, successful evolutionary experiments on a climatic oasis, Earth, in the sun’s orbit: not created from scratch, but evolved one from another, and interdependent.
The concept of an Anthropogene era is timely, but not simply as marker in geology’s calendar of events. The challenge is to make everyone aware that science, especially as ecology, now documents the ongoing interdependencies that religion’s insights early on glimpsed “as through a glass darkly.”
Awareness demands normative guidelines, so there is much rethinking to do. A new marker in time must remind us not only of our accomplishments, but of failures like Mike Davis’ slum cities, which appear to be built-in end products of late-capitalism. Is this how we want to be remembered?