Extinction Rebellion protesters. Rupert Rivett/Shutterstock.com
We are living through a period of unprecedented environmental breakdown which is increasingly being referred to as “the Anthropocene”. As the term becomes more and more pervasive, I want to explain why, as a psychologist and a committed environmentalist, I think it is a highly problematic way of framing our predicament.
Originally proposed by atmospheric scientists and then geologists, the Anthropocene has come to the fore as a powerful if perplexing way of talking about our current era. This is a period in which, for the first time in its history, the Earth is being deeply transformed by one species – humans. The word Anthropocene refers to the idea that the Earth’s geological record has been transformed by humanity: Anthropos is Greek for human and -cene is a substantial geological time period within the current 65 million year old Cenozoic era.SAPhotog/Shutterstock.com
While I agree that this is an important and timely provocation, I want to pause here for a moment, and consider whether the Anthropocene narrative really does capture our predicament and our prospects. There is already plenty of criticism of the Anthropocene idea. Alternative terms like Capitalocene (which attempts to highlight the detrimental forces of capitalism), and Plantationocene (which emphasises the role of colonialism, the plantation system and slave labour) have been offered as a way of doubling down on the elements of human history responsible for environmental crises, rather than lumping all humans, and their responsibility, together. But I want to concentrate on the idea of time itself.
“Deep time” is the concept of geological time that is used “to describe the timing and relationships between events that have occurred throughout Earth’s history”. That’s a 4.54 billion year history. We struggle to grasp the huge scale of a sense of time that is so, well, deep. There are numerous analogies for helping us comprehend this enormity, like the 24-hour clock – that humans have only been on the planet for 19 seconds of it. I like the one below, as you can visualise it simply enough by holding out your arm.
If the Earth formed about 4.54 billion years ago at the shoulder, animals of any kind appear within the palm, and more familiar (to us) lifeforms originate at the first knuckle. Movement along the fingers represent the periods that followed, incorporating, for example, the Jurassic. And humans? The 11,700-year-old Holocene marks the start of a global spread of homo sapiens – “a microscopic sliver at the tip of a fingernail”. The beginning of the proposed Anthropocene, whether we go with a starting point of a mooted 400 years, 70 or somewhere in between, is a tiny speck within this sliver.
So, have homo sapiens created a new geological era? In simple terms, there is something of a case here – there’s plenty of evidence for human impact in the geological record, from signatures of human-induced climate change, atomic testing, and much more. But a fuller appreciation of deep time should actually make us wary of the Anthropocene label, maybe even shift our image of ourselves and what it means to inhabit the Earth at this time. Here’s why.
Around 66m years ago, a mass extinction event took place, wiping out around three quarters of all species. This was most likely the result of an enormous asteroid impact – a conclusion reached after the discovery of a thin but distinct layer of sediment in the geologic record from this time, containing elements abundant in asteroids.
Mass extinction offered an opportunity for the rise of mammals as dominant lifeforms – ushering in the Cenezoic (“new life”) era. This thin layer of comet dust in the rock record represents a brief but vital transition between much thicker preceding and subsequent layers. But no one refers to what followed the mass extinction event as the “Cometocene”. That just wouldn’t make sense – the impact was a one-off event, significant in the context of deep time only in that it ushered in new foundations for life that then stretched out for millions of years into the far future.
What if the same could be said of our influence? What if, even with the well-documented effects of an Anthropocene still accumulating, we are talking about human impacts as a mere blip in the context of deep time? This is likely true. The spread of industrialism has aggressively and rapidly extracted and used up a finite supply of resources. The fact of finiteness, coupled with unprecedented environmental breakdown, fundamentally circumscribes the long-term viability of any possible era of human dominance.
This is what the American writer John Michael Greer claims when he says that all forms of industrial civilisation combined, in the context of geological time, are unremarkably short-lived and “self-terminating” – simply a transition between eras. This is why, he considers the Holocene-Neocene transition, H-N transition for short, as a more accurate term, with Neocene being a placeholder name for whatever emerges next.
Our geological legacy will probably be like the comet dust – “a slightly odd transition layer a quarter of an inch thick”. As a remarkably adaptive species, humans may find ecological niches to survive and flourish in this far future, but we will not be dominant.
A new psychology
This does not mean we are heading towards some kind of one-off cataclysm – another extinction event. It means we are already living through one. But rather than being remembered as something grandiloquent and portentous – like the Anthropocene – it is more likely that some far future species would think of us as what historian Stephen Kern calls “a parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity”. In the context of deep time, the Earth will continue to meander on without us, and it will hardly notice we’re gone, just as it hardly knew we were here.
This sojourn into deep time is not intended to be depressing or defeatist, certainly not to rule out hope, or to avoid acknowledgement of the damage humans can do. I think its psychological relevance is to offer a reminder of life itself as something to approach with reverence and awe; our species as interdependent and interconnected, not somehow apart; and to chip away at any residual hubris in the idea of the Anthropocene.Gustavo Frazao/Shutterstock.com
Locating humanity in an even deeper story can seem scary. But it might also be liberating. For countless cultures around the world of course, this is nothing new – many Indigenous worldviews embrace nature, have a reverence for it and a deep sense of time and place. While being historically displaced from those places by the forces of colonialism and industrialism, these voices are often neglected.
The history of our far future, if we have one, will be one where we learnt to recognise interdependence with nature, with other species. In the end, it is about what it means to be human. As the late environmental philosopher Val Plumwood warned: “We will go onwards in a different mode of humanity, or not at all.”
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"The Uninhabitable Earth hits you like a comet, with an overflow of insanely lyrical prose about our pending Armageddon."—Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon
It is worse, much worse, than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible. In California, wildfires now rage year-round, destroying thousands of homes. Across the US, “500-year” storms pummel communities month after month, and floods displace tens of millions annually.
This is only a preview of the changes to come. And they are coming fast. Without a revolution in how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth could become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.
In his travelogue of our near future, David Wallace-Wells brings into stark relief the climate troubles that await—food shortages, refugee emergencies, and other crises that will reshape the globe. But the world will be remade by warming in more profound ways as well, transforming our politics, our culture, our relationship to technology, and our sense of history. It will be all-encompassing, shaping and distorting nearly every aspect of human life as it is lived today.
Like An Inconvenient Truth and Silent Spring before it, The Uninhabitable Earth is both a meditation on the devastation we have brought upon ourselves and an impassioned call to action. For just as the world was brought to the brink of catastrophe within the span of a lifetime, the responsibility to avoid it now belongs to a single generation.
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These experts take scientific findings about climate change and global warming and use analogies, striking images, and understandable graphics to make the global warming question clear to both skeptics and scientists. Dire Predictions shows the evidence and the causes that respected scientists have documented in IPCC findings and climate change studies — this powerful, illustrated book is updated with the latest IPCC information and is a must-read for anyone interested in understanding global warming and climate change and in joining the debate over the best way to combat global warming.
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A major book about the future of the world, blending intellectual and natural history and field reporting into a powerful account of the mass extinction unfolding before our eyes
Over the last half-billion years, there have been Five mass extinctions, when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracted. Scientists around the world are currently monitoring the sixth extinction, predicted to be the most devastating extinction event since the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. This time around, the cataclysm is us. In prose that is at once frank, entertaining, and deeply informed, New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert tells us why and how human beings have altered life on the planet in a way no species has before. Interweaving research in half a dozen disciplines, descriptions of the fascinating species that have already been lost, and the history of extinction as a concept, Kolbert provides a moving and comprehensive account of the disappearances occurring before our very eyes. She shows that the sixth extinction is likely to be mankind's most lasting legacy, compelling us to rethink the fundamental question of what it means to be human.
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In short, either we embrace radical change ourselves or radical changes will be visited upon our physical world. The status quo is no longer an option.
In This Changes Everything Naomi Klein argues that climate change isn’t just another issue to be neatly filed between taxes and health care. It’s an alarm that calls us to fix an economic system that is already failing us in many ways. Klein meticulously builds the case for how massively reducing our greenhouse emissions is our best chance to simultaneously reduce gaping inequalities, re-imagine our broken democracies, and rebuild our gutted local economies. She exposes the ideological desperation of the climate-change deniers, the messianic delusions of the would-be geoengineers, and the tragic defeatism of too many mainstream green initiatives. And she demonstrates precisely why the market has not—and cannot—fix the climate crisis but will instead make things worse, with ever more extreme and ecologically damaging extraction methods, accompanied by rampant disaster capitalism.
Klein argues that the changes to our relationship with nature and one another that are required to respond to the climate crisis humanely should not be viewed as grim penance, but rather as a kind of gift—a catalyst to transform broken economic and cultural priorities and to heal long-festering historical wounds. And she documents the inspiring movements that have already begun this process: communities that are not just refusing to be sites of further fossil fuel extraction but are building the next, regeneration-based economies right now.
Can we pull off these changes in time? Nothing is certain. Nothing except that climate change changes everything. And for a very brief time, the nature of that change is still up to us.