Invoking 'the Anthropocene' signals a paradigm in which humans have fundamentally altered the biosphere in ways that are deeply problematic. But does designating the epoch in this manner constrain us toward mainly negative outcomes?
Contemporary societies have a tendency to name things based more on what has been lost than what’s actually transpiring in real time. As such, a new suburban development might be dubbed something bucolic-sounding like “Quail Meadows,” after the quail have been chased off and the meadows turned into building pads. Many North American landmark names follow similar logic.
The pronouncement by a blue-ribbon working group that we are living in “The Anthropocene” (denoting fundamental human interventions in the planet’s biophysical processes) fits within this framework. Up to now, the naming of historical epochs has always been done with the benefit of hindsight, but the Anthropocene revealed itself contemporaneously — and perhaps nostalgically.
To many, the implications of the Anthropocene are self-evident: humans (although not all of us equally) have radically altered the basic ecological systems that make life possible on this planet for ourselves, and potentially many other species.
At root, the concept is about the ways in which we’re eroding the basis for our foothold here—and of our fleeting legacy in the annals of history.
The moniker might thus be a potent warning to change course before it’s too late—or it could become a nascent epitaph if unheeded.
It could turn out that the Anthropocene marks our impending passing rather than a rapid reclaiming of our capacity to alter course, which begs the question of what will come next — and how we might be more conscious about planting seeds for tomorrow.
The naming of the Anthropocene — referencing both human folly and power alike — provides us with a sphere of agency and a window of time.
While our nihilistic dalliances with nuclear proliferation and our profligate resource consumption and pollution may be harbingers of descent, the full cognizance of planetary alterations nods to our inherent capacities.
We need look no further than the leading candidates for the proverbial Golden Spike (that point at which we mark the era’s onset) to apprehend that the closure of the Anthropocene is nearly coterminous with its inception: nuclear wastes, rampant fossil fuel exploitation, climate-changing lifeways, ubiquitous plastics.
Maybe this is why mitigating action has been slow to emerge: some may view the invocation of the Anthropocene as an affirmation, a nod to humanity's mastery and dominion, or as a call for even more human intervention into the biosphere. Will this yield innovative solutions, or hasten our ultimate demise? Either way, it will be vainglorious.
This is the paradox of the Anthropocene, a simultaneous sense of fear and awe. Critical questions abound: What has our social system made us become? How do those who shape our society produce environmental degradation, and fool us into blaming all humanity or even our biology for their ecological sins? The quest for control may well lead to humankind losing it altogether.
The Anthropocene is inherently unsustainable. It is the first epoch not only named in real time, but with its own imminent endpoint squarely framed by the label itself. This scaling up of the self-defeating behaviors reified in the dominant political economy presents itself as categorical and inevitable.
Yet it need not — and indeed, must not—be so. In a real sense, every era is unsustainable insofar as it will end someday, at least in a geological context. The question isn’t whether we’ll change course, but whether we’ll do so voluntarily or fatalistically. What makes the real-time naming of the Anthropocene truly remarkable is that it makes this choice concrete, palpable, and imminent.
What we need, then, isn’t more debate over whether humankind is fouling the nest, but rather an exit strategy for how to transition from the Anthropocene’s inscribed unsustainability to a new model that is just and sustainable at all scales. Maybe it will resemble an older narrative, one based on systems of relative cooperation and a dose of humility — ideas that seem radical today.
What might follow? The abject urgency of an eponymous Anthropocene makes us all futurists, practically and poetically, and suggests that the promulgation of any human future isn’t merely a spectator sport.
Many of the alternative names for the Anthropocene posited by social critics convey a sense of accumulated crises and endemic despair: Plantationocene, Capitalocene, Anthrobscene, Misanthropocene, Chthulucene. Or perhaps even something like the Obsolescene, as the logical conclusion of a social order based on planned obsolescence? The news, it appears, is not good.
Scientists ratify this premise, observing with increasing alarmism that we are eclipsing the “safe operating space” that has made the flourishing of many human societies possible for millennia.
Science confirms an intuitive sense of what is being unearthed (almost literally) in the epoch’s final reel as we fast approach “climate tipping points” that could trigger runaway cascade effects. If the Anthropocene enshrines human control, then an ‘unsafe’ space connotes something darker.
And yet, this moment may someday be remembered for an unleashing of our creative potential and our capacity to evolve with — rather than on or despite — the web of life in which we are enmeshed: a Symbiocene, a Balancene, a Mutualocene.
Dreamers and pragmatists alike can unite in the view that another world, a just future with bold vision, is both desired and required.
Dr. Randall Amster teaches (and learns) Environmental Studies at Georgetown University, among other modes of ongoing exploration. He is the author of works including Peace Ecology.