When Hurricane Sandy walloped New York and New Jersey, most news reports included the disclaimer that routinely accompanies extreme weather. “We can’t attribute this one event to climate change,” the caveat goes. “The storm could have happened without global warming.” Sure, I suppose that mathematically the storm might have occurred absent climate change. But it didn’t. We now live on a planet where almost everything, including the atmosphere, is a human artifact; even our “natural” disasters are man-made.
Welcome to the “Anthropocene.” The word is meant to capture the idea that humans have so fundamentally altered Earth that we have ushered in a new geological epoch – the Age of Man. In just a few years the word has taken on the force of a powerful meme and, among environmentalists, has become a charged Rorschach test. Is naming a geologic age after ourselves the ultimate act of hubris? Or can the idea of the Anthropocene move us toward a new spirit of mindful stewardship for this small rock circling the sun?
To plumb that question, we invited some leading environmental writers to share their thoughts about the Anthropocene. Most of our essayists are skeptical. “The very notion that humans have become the ‘deciders,’ the shapers of Earth, makes Earth guffaw in swirls of violence,” Kathleen Dean Moore writes. Here’s how Ginger Strand thinks of it: “To say we have ruined Gaia is to give ourselves, once again, way too much power. So we need a better narrative.”
I mostly agree – just as I agree with David Biello, who points out in an introductory essay that humans have been altering the planet at least since the primeval megafauna extinctions. At the same time, I think the Anthropocene provides an opportunity to reconsider the consequences of our actions. In addition to the essays, this issue includes a survey of the many different ways we have changed Earth: How, for example, our synthetic products have disrupted the planet’s chemistry, how our lights have nearly eliminated the firmament, how our cacophony is deafening other creatures, how our travels have scattered other species, how our accidents have created atomic forests.
No doubt longtime Journal readers are familiar with these phenomena. And still they bear repeating, if for no other reason than that they show how humans’ most exceptional trait, our amazing adaptability, is a double-edged sword. We create, we alter – and then we become all-too-accustomed to those alterations. We get used to our creations, and they feed our sense that our industrial world is normal or, even worse, natural. Someone paves paradise, puts up a parking lot … and then it’s just the place where we drop the kids for karate.
Maybe that’s too nostalgic, too sentimental. There’s no Eden to go back to – never was. But if we remember that things weren’t always this way, that our impressive creations are as transient as we are, it might force us to recognize that although we can shape natural forces, we can’t control them. That’s a big difference: as big as the difference between the arrogance that brought us to this new epoch and the humility we’ll need to survive it.
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