Sometimes a single figure tells a huge story. Jan Zalasiewicz, taking an Earth Systems approach in a chapter of Altered Earth: Getting the Anthropocene Right, produces one such:
“Include the ploughlands, the trawled sea floor … all as part of what one might call the ‘physical technosphere’ … humans use, have used, and have discarded, some 30 trillion tonnes of Earth material, most of it since the mid-20th century. This is equivalent to a layer of rubble and soil averaging 50 kilograms per square meter of the Earth’s surface – land and sea. As a species, therefore, we are almost literally trudging ankle-deep through the debris of the Anthropocene.”
This single, hugely informative and disturbing, statistic is contained within an unusual volume edited by Julia Adeney Thomas and published by Cambridge University Press. Under the umbrella of the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society, it combines scientific perspectives with fictional explorations of the term Anthropocene – the new human-created geological age – coined only about two decades ago by the biologist Eugene Stoermer (although Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen is generally credited with it).
An original multi-disciplinary approach
The overall aim of the book is to ‘get the Anthropocene right’ in three senses: accuracy of physical description; balance in its consideration of the human activity that led to this age; and just in its discussion of potential future developments.
It is an approach that produces not just original thinking and unveils perspectives – such as on the long-term relationship between humans and parasites and infectious diseases, which is not often considered – but many more memorable vignettes. On the fictional side, I’ll never look at the Mona Lisa in quite the same way again, after the fate assigned to it by Clive Hamilton, who crafts a desperate mission to Mars from a dying Earth in which it features. Art lovers might want to skip this one!
What’s telling about every chapter in this volume, one way and another, is the tight interlinking of different disciplines, and different arenas of academia – something we so need in order to get a full picture as COP15 (the UN biodiversity conference) follows COP27 (the UN climate change conference). Science, sociology and medicine are not separated in this book, as they can’t be when we consider the many impacts of our species on this fragile planet.
An example is Zalasiewicz’s discussion of of the rise in sea level. He points out that the ‘best’ likely outcome – a rise of 1–2 metres is in itself “geologically very small”. However, combined with the congregation of humans in vast urban constructions on coasts, and the often metre-scale subsidence of those settled areas caused by the extraction of groundwater, our “manufactured vulnerability” is actually very large.
A book that makes us face facts
This is not a volume that pulls its punches. In the editor’s own chapter, she points out that aiming to maintain warming at around 2 degrees is not any kind of panacea. Quoting from authors featured in this volume, she writes:
“Success wouldn’t return us to the pleasant conditions of the Holocene… Alas, there can be no ‘repeal of the Anthropocene’. Instead ‘stabilized Earth will likely be warmer than any other time over the last 800,000 years at least’ and probably won’t avoid activation of some triggers that would lead to ‘abrupt shifts at the level of critical biomes that support humanity’…
“The Earth System does not tend to be stable at approximately 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. A stabilized planet at that temperature would be highly artificial. Constructing and maintaining it would require orchestrating our social systems to manipulate the Earth System and deflect it from business-as-usual trajectory.”
A powerful argument for clinging firmly to the Paris target of keeping warming below 1.5 degrees.
Fascinating questions thrown up and discussed
Typical of the many fascinating, sometimes obvious but little considered, questions thrown up by this book is Kyle Harper’s chapter titled ‘the abundant ape’. Why is it, when “even in the best of chimp times” there were never more than a million or two chimpanzees on this planet, given our human population now of eight billion?
Harper posits, persuasively, that crucial to our rising numbers has been control over disease, but he points out that this has not necessarily been accompanied by health: “The receding tide of infectious disease did not just leave behind good, natural deaths”. We live in an environment pervaded by toxins, plastics, radiation and air pollution, with our symbiotic microbiomes severely damaged by antimicrobials, artificial preservatives and bad diets. The spread, particularly in the US, of opioid drugs have damaged the social fabric and also cut life expectancy.
In addition, he points out, we’ve created an enormously raised level of risk, not least through our sheer numbers and concentrations in cities of 20 million or more (“from a parasite’s perspective, we are simply bundles of energy and nutrients there for the taking”). Adding to that, he lists our destruction of the environment, our rapid circulation around the globe, the damage done by climate change, and the spectre of biological warfare. Covid-19 may not have been “the big one”.
Chapters that look forward to a better future
That’s a depressing collection of chapters, but this is not, in sum, a depressing book, for it also contains kernels of leadership towards a different future Most notable in this respect is the chapter by Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer. This takes a view of the Anthropocene from the field of cultural anthropology, specifically the perspective of the Mexican Isthmus of Tehuantepec, home to the densest concentration of wind turbines on Earth.
It is also home to indigenous people and campesinos (small farmers). From their perspective, the arrival of the turbines is just one more form of colonialism and exploitation that delivers few or no benefits to them, but often deprives them of access to land and other rights. Yet at the same time, with the arrival of the turbines and their multinational proponents came a revival of older political forms, communal assemblies based on indigenous customary law and collective land management.
As Manuel Arias-Maldonado argues in his chapter ‘Politics in the Anthropocene’, humanity itself has to become an actor in this new geological age – “must learn to act collectively to preserve itself” – while acknowledging that “we are differentiated members of particular societies that bear different responsibilities and carry disparate burdens and potentials”. And responding to those who want to put private economic liberty above a liveable planet, he says, briskly and accurately “a liberal society cannot commit suicide in the name of freedom”.
Getting the Anthropocene right
Authoritarianism is no answer, as Kate Brown illustrates in her chapter on the Nuclear Anthropocene, which situates the Chernobyl accident in Ukraine not just as a one-off, but as part of a broad pattern of spraying radiation around the countryside. Brown is reporting from right on the ground – finding for herself a bomb crater in neighbouring Belarus, which may well have been the result of a ‘tactical’ nuclear bomb test, with a spindly pine growing from it, just like pines at Chernobyl. She finds a Belarusian doctor who identified a spike in birth defects, ten years before Chernobyl, in the region bordering the bombing range.
One message is totally clear: we cannot go on like this. The Anthropocene will demand a very different way of living and relating to the world around us. Given the terrible quality of life that trashing the planet has given us today, that’s something to look forward to. But understanding what we’ve done is key to preventing the same mistakes being magnified by the damage already done. In adding to such understanding in scientifically rigorous, thoughtful and imaginative ways, this book makes an important contribution.