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Revisiting the Anthropocene Age

It’s difficult to conceive, but a few decades ago nature was largely seen as a dangerously untamed force. Now only when there are natural disasters, such as the recent cyclone that devastated the island country of Vanuatu, are we reminded that the forces of nature are not under human control.

Anthropocene Age 1The day of the cyclone I watched “Death Comes to Pemberly,” a sequel to Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” written in 2011 by a 91 year-old P.D. James. She has a telling line that betrays the dominant view of nature during her youth: “It’s easy to forget that the chaos and darkness of nature is so close.”

That projection was easy to understand when much of the earth was still wilderness, and many people had to fight the natural, as opposed to the man-made elements to survive. But now that the destructive impact humans are having on the planet is indisputable, it raises the questions: Does chaos and darkness apply to nature at all? Does only man actually generate chaos and darkness?

The Anthropocene Age, or Age of Man, is a putatively scientific construct within the discipline of geology. That’s where things get philosophically dicey.

An age or epoch in geological terms requires that two main criteria be met: Long-lasting changes to the earth, and the ability of scientists to “pinpoint and date a global environmental change that has been captured in natural material.”

There is something deliciously circular in this entire line of thinking, scientifically naming an epoch after humans while the planet is being plundered. Indeed, the scientific debate is about when the ‘Age of Man’ began, whether it was with the dawn of agriculture, with the era of plastics and fallout, or the ‘Great Acceleration’ of greenhouses gases and other environmental impacts. That’s reminiscent of the old theological debates about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.

A few hundred years ago, such theological debates ignored the decline of the Church as the scientific age gained momentum. In the self-named Anthropocene, discussions about when the Anthropocene Age began ignore the role of science in the decimation of the earth.

Things reach the level of theatre of the absurd when serious scientists, such as Jan Zalasiewicz, a geologist at the University of Leicester who leads the Anthropocene Working Group, says things like: “I suspect it’s a little bit like standing on the Earth 65 million years ago, a few years after the impact of the meteorite on the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico and seeing that the world has changed but not yet being able to see how it is going to evolve from then on. I think we are somewhere in that kind of position.”

The paradox is that humans are back where we thought we were before the Copernican revolution–at the center of nature—though certainly not in the way we want to be, as planet killers bringing about Sixth Extinction.

The latest attempt to distance ourselves from what we are doing comes in the form of a study that argues the Anthropocene Age began with the cultural clash between the Old World and the New World. Some “scientists say the 1492 arrival of Europeans in the Americas, and subsequent global trade, moved species to new continents and oceans, resulting in a global re-ordering of life on Earth.”

How convenient! We don’t have to face what humankind is doing to the planet at present; we can push back the beginning of the so-called Anthropocene Age to over 500 years. Even putting the question in the hands of geologists, who study the changes in rocks over millions of years, ensures we don’t have to take responsibility for studying ourselves in the here and now.

There is something bizarrely self-referential in hunting for the so-called “golden spike” of when the Anthropocene began, like the chemical signature left by the meteorite strike that wiped out the dinosaurs. Approaching our own species and its effects on the earth as if they were a natural event should make all people of conscience profoundly queasy.

The destruction is happening now. We are bringing it about, the living generations. The crisis is urgent, and it is incumbent on us to find an adequate response. If you don’t care, don’t have children.

Studying the Anthropocene as if it is was another epoch, like the Pliocene or Miocene, completely misses the point. A modicum of reflection goes to the heart of the matter: Can science objectively study the subject when the subject is our own consciousness?

When considering the Anthropocene Age, we up against the limits and assumptions of science, including the subject-object duality itself.

Martin LeFevre

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