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Anthropocene: On the Substance of a New Idea

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Energy & Environment
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By Christian Schwägerl

In February 2000, Paul J. Crutzen erupted at a scientific conference in Mexico. Five years previously, the Dutch-born atmospheric chemist had been awarded the Nobel Prize for being one of the first to recognize and investigate the dangers to the protective layer around Earth. Crutzen’s findings were a vital contribution to the international prohibition of the most harmful of these gases in 1988 and to enabling the ozone layer to slowly regenerate.

Over his entire career, Crutzen gathered materials showing how humans have changed, influenced and damaged the earth – often, as the case with the ozone layer, not even with malicious intention, but rather from pure ignorance.

At the Mexico symposium, on the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program, he listened to one lecture after the next in which the present period was vaguely described as the ‘Holocene,' as geologists call the period in Earth’s history since the last ice age nearly 12,000 years ago.

The Nobel Prize winner’s dissatisfaction with this word grew steadily until finally he stood up to interrupt the speaker. "We no longer live in the Holocene," Crutzen declared gruffly. "We live in the, in the, in the … Anthropocene."

In Greek ‘Anthropos’ means human being as such, the final syllable ‘-cene’ deriving from the word for ‘new.' So, Anthropocene stands for a new chapter in Earth's history shaped by human actions. Crutzen's spontaneous intervention was driven by his insight into a fundamental transition: Humans certainly are the strongest force in nature, but they have become the dominant force of change on Earth. Crutzen’s small outburst first only created a stir at the event. For quite some time, the new word was barely noticed outside of geology.

But that is changing fast. The idea of the Anthropocene now engages politicians, artists, ecologists, humanities scholars and ethicists. Ban Ki-Moon, General Secretary of the United Nations, opened the last Rio environmental summit with the words, "Welcome to the Anthopocene." The Berlin House of World Cultures received funding from the German Federal Parliament for a three-year international project to explore the idea jointly with the Max Planck Society and the Deutsche Museum. The Smithsonian in Washington, and many institutions in the U.K. and elsewhere, are starting to engage the public in the debate about what it means to live in the Anthropocene.

Most important of all is probably the work of the Anthropocene Working Group. This body of scientists has the task of casting a vote in 2016 as to whether the Earth’s epoch in which we currently live should be officially renamed. Astonishingly, Crutzen’s spontaneous intervention has developed into a universal idea that has found attention worldwide and could even become the generic scientific term for all of mankind’s activities.

Primarily the Anthropocene idea is a scientific hypothesis: Mankind has changed the planet not only in a global dimension, but also in a long-term sense, to the point that this will remain recognizable even in the far-off future. So, it is not merely scratches in the Earth’s system that we leave behind, but changes in how it functions. Even if mankind disappeared from Earth tomorrow, interested visitors in 100,000 or even several million years could still see that we have been here. Just as geologists today investigate the shells of extinct ammonites or new kinds of rock strata as ‘markers’ of earlier impacts on Earth’s history, so in this imagined future there would be indications of the ‘epoch of mankind’ in stubborn techno-fossils, new types of substances, globally altered distribution patterns of animals and plants, and in the bones and pollen grains of bred life-forms, as well as in such artifacts as cities that have become geologic strata in which glass, metals and rocks are wildly mixed.

The pieces of hard evidence are numerous: The carbon dioxide emissions that have constantly grown since the onset of industrialization are sufficient to change the world’s climate for tens of thousands of years, turning the seas so acidic that many algae and corals can no longer live in them. The Haber-Bosch process means that mankind, in the production of fertilizers, has already extracted more nitrogen from the air and introduced it into eco-systems than was there naturally – with massively negative consequences for biodiversity. Globally, forests and savannas are plowed up so as to produce food for humans.

Taken together, global agricultural areas are as large as South America. While humans and their livestock made up only a few percent of the biomass of larger animals at the end of the last ice age, today they comprise 97 percent. Wild animals make up just 3 percent when put on the scales. Accelerated consumerism has resulted in metals and minerals disappearing in certain places due to mining, and reappearing in other places in new material combinations, for example as heaps of electronic scrap.

To this can be added numerous other long-term ‘markers,' measurable or visible, of the Anthropocene: for example, the artificial radioactive elements that have entered the world since 1945 as a result of atomic bomb explosions and the use of nuclear power; the vast amount of dumped plastic that could wrap the whole world once over in plastic film; and the millions of various synthetic chemicals that have spread and accumulated around the Earth’s system. Radionuclides and plastic are at present considered the clearest measurable signal as to why the official dawn of the Anthropocene should probably be dated at 1945.

Measured by this hard evidence, the Anthropocene sounds like something that should in fact be combated. As a summation of all our environmental problems it rather resembles a terrifying vision. Or does it, even worse, legitimize yet more destruction of the environment? Critics assert that the word ‘Anthropocene’ sounds like ‘anthropocentrism.' Is that perhaps supposed to be the idea of the Anthoropocene: that earth is owned by mankind, that we have the right to submit it to his technology and capitalistic logic, to exploit and rebuild it according to his needs, and to make subjects of animals, plants and living spaces, not only in a metaphorical but a real sense, but right down to the very last corner? So, that if something goes wrong, humans can react to it with such large-scale technology as genetic engineering and artificial cooling gases?

Currently Anthropocene is often seen as the sum of all environmental problems – or as a synonym for all techno-fixes humans can use to survive their wrongdoings with regard to climate and ecosystems. But I would like to offer another reading of this important term, one that is neither purely negative nor purely positive – an interpretation that stresses the responsibility we have for shaping our collective future. In such a perspective, the Anthropocene is a tool that helps us become aware of a fundamental global transformation.

To speak of the Anthropocene could mean to integrate human history into natural history. We no longer see ourselves as a power coming from without, but rather we recognize our origins from the earth’s crust and our interconnectedness with all other forms in which nature manifests itself. The Anthropocene can help to extend our temporal horizon: In an era in which billions are shifted around the world in nano-seconds, and companies, like governments, make decisions looking no more than a few months ahead, the Anthropocene idea creates the sense of a long past, and above all a long future.

By shifting the focus on to the far-off future, our sensors for the long-term consequences of our actions become heightened. Also, the ideological basis of ruthless nature exploitation – namely that there is a clear border between ecology and economy, between culture and nature, and that what we call ‘environment’ is an external, economically worthless factor – is refuted by the Anthropocene concept: Nature appears as the primary economy of earth. By removing the illusion of a ‘great out there’ which we can help ourselves to and into which we can dump all our rubbish, the Anthropocene idea creates a new imperative: to design cities, agriculture, fishing, technology and production in such a way that they enrich rather than impoverish the biosphere.

Exactly how the Anthropocene will proceed is not laid down in any master plan nor ideology. When I once accompanied Paul J. Crutzen to a conference, on the way there he said to me in that characteristic mix of humility and brilliance: "What the Anthropocene is precisely? I don’t know." How the ‘human epoch’ will proceed depends on collective action, on social movements and economic, power-based decisions. The fact that the consciousness of one species can have such profound impact on Earth is something new in the history of nature. Jürgen Renn from the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science describes it as follows: "The Anthropocene is a process that reflects upon itself."

Image credit: Flickr/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Christian Schwägerl, born in 1968, is the author of the book "The Anthropocene - the human era and how it shapes our planet," published by Synergetic Pressworks in 2014. The German version of his book inspired the ‘Anthropocene Project’ at the House of World Cultures in Berlin and the special exhibition titled ‘Welcome to the Anthropocene’ on show until mid-2016 at the Deutsches Museum in Munich. Other books by Christian Schwägerl are ‘11 Looming Wars’ (2012) and ‘The Analogue Revolution’ (2014), both published in German. The author is a regular contributor to GEO magazine, Frankfurter Allgemeine Newspaper, Yale E360  and other media outlets. He runs the Masterclass ‘Future of Science Journalism’ for the German Robert Bosch Foundation.

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