For Paul Crutzen, the Nobel laureate who has contributed enormously to our understanding of our beleaguered planet, the idea of the Anthropocene might be a way for us to recommit to safeguarding the planet’s ecosystems. It was Crutzen who, more than a decade ago, proposed that we formally recognize that we have left the epoch of the Holocene. Recently Crutzen and journalist Christian Schwagerl returned to the theme of “human dominance of biological, chemical and geological processes on Earth … a planet that is being anthroposized at high speed.” Writing in 2011 in Yale Environment 360, they expressed their hope that, “rather than representing yet another sign of human hubris, this name change would stress the enormity of humanity’s responsibility as stewards of the Earth. It would highlight the immense power of our intellect and our creativity, and the opportunities they offer for shaping the future.”
As Crutzen would acknowledge, the emergence of a world where human action is profoundly affecting natural processes has been highlighted by scientists and others for some time. Ecologist Jane Lubchenco, in her 1998 address as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, made the following observation: “The conclusions … are inescapable: during the last few decades, humans have emerged as a new force of nature. We are modifying physical, chemical, and biological systems in new ways, at faster rates, and over larger spatial scales than ever recorded on Earth. Humans have unwittingly embarked upon a grand experiment with our planet. The outcome of this experiment is unknown, but has profound implications for all of life on Earth.” Scientist Peter Vitousek and his coauthors stated the matter forcefully in a 1997 article in Science: “Humanity’s dominance of Earth means that we cannot escape responsibility for managing the planet. Our activities are causing rapid, novel, and substantial changes to Earth’s ecosystems. Maintaining populations, species, and ecosystems in the face of those changes, and maintaining the flow of goods and services they provide humanity, will require active management for the foreseeable future.” Even I addressed these themes as long ago as 1981. In one of several reports on the climate threat released by President Carter’s Council on Environmental Quality, I noted: “People have altered the face of the planet throughout history, but the power of today’s technology and our growing capacity to foresee, however uncertainly, the possible consequences of our acts put us in a new moral position. The responsibility for the carbon dioxide problem is ours – we should accept it and act in a way that recognizes our role as trustees of the earth for future generations.”
Given that scientists and others have repeatedly called attention to, and often decried, the emerging human dominance of planetary systems, will giving this reality a name make a difference? Possibly it could have positive consequences. It’s worth trying, if for no other reason than that not much else seems to be working. Perhaps the name could further the emergence of a new planetary sensibility – a new consciousness of ecological citizenship and stewardship.
But there is at least one major pitfall to be guarded against, one alluded to by Crutzen and Schwagerl when they caution against the name change becoming “yet another sign of human hubris.” They note that throughout history we humans have fought “against a superpower we call ‘Nature.’” Is the branding of our new geologic era a celebration of our final victory over nature? If so, it would be a Pyrrhic victory indeed. Especially if the name aids the growing momentum behind large-scale manipulation of the atmosphere to counteract global warming. It appears this is already happening. Crutzen and Schwagerl beckon us to this Icarus-like mission, calling for development of “geoengineering capabilities in order to be prepared for worst-case scenarios.” Ah, if only we had the competence to slow emissions, much less the competence to wisely geoengineer the planet.
So, yes, a new name for this planetary epoch might give us greater urgency to deal with our ecological predicament. But it’s unlikely to give us more wisdom.
Gus Speth, a cofounder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, is the author of America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy.
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