Anthropocene: Why You Should Get Used to the Age of Man (and Woman)

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Allan Baxter

The cover package of this week’s TIME—which should still be on newsstands—detailed the 10 ideas that are changing your life. What kind of ideas, you ask? Well there’s the living alone as the new norm—which I totally get, having mostly lived alone since graduating school, and almost always by choice. There’s the rise of the nones, those Americans who have spiritual inclinations but refuse to belong any specific religious denomination. (I get that, too, as a lapsed Catholic who just read The Posture of Meditation and ordered a yoga cushion off Amazon Prime.) There’s one about food that can last forever, while still tasting good. (For what it’s worth, I have Thai takeout chicken curry in my refrigerator that dates back to the summer.) And there’s black irony, which is different—but not that different—from black comedy.

And then there’s my contribution: just a little something about the end of nature as we know it.

Welcome to the Anthropocene. It’s a new geological epoch, one where the planet is shaped less by natural forces then by the combined activity, aspirations—and emissions—of more than 7 billion human beings:

For a species that has been around for less than 1% of 1% of the earth’s 4.5 billion-year history, Homo sapiens has certainly put its stamp on the place. Humans have had a direct impact on more than three-quarters of the ice-free land on earth. Almost 90% of the world’s plant activity now takes place in ecosystems where people play a significant role. We’ve stripped the original forests from much of North America and Europe and helped push tens of thousands of species into extinction. Even in the vast oceans, among the few areas of the planet uninhabited by humans, our presence has been felt thanks to overfishing and marine pollution. Through artificial fertilizers–which have dramatically increased food production and, with it, human population–we’ve transformed huge amounts of nitrogen from an inert gas in our atmosphere into an active ingredient in our soil, the runoff from which has created massive aquatic dead zones in coastal areas. And all the CO2 that the 7 billion-plus humans on earth emit is rapidly changing the climate–and altering the very nature of the planet.

Human activity now shapes the earth more than any other independent geologic or climatic factor. Our impact on the planet’s surface and atmosphere has become so powerful that scientists are considering changing the way we measure geologic time. Right now we’re officially living in the Holocene epoch, a particularly pleasant period that started when the last ice age ended 12,000 years ago. But some scientists argue that we’ve broken into a new epoch that they call the Anthropocene: the age of man. “Human dominance of biological, chemical and geological processes on Earth is already an undeniable reality,” writes Paul Crutzen, the Nobel Prize–winning atmospheric chemist who first popularized the term Anthropocene. “It’s no longer us against ‘Nature.’ Instead, it’s we who decide what nature is and what it will be.”

The rest of the piece is, sadly, behind the magazine paymoat, but the message is simple: the Anthropocene is here whether we want it or not. It’s evident every time you look out the door and see a landscape that has been utterly transformed by the human presence. As Crutzen puts it, the question now is about responsibility—whether we have the wisdom and maturity as a species to manage the planet permanently, instead of simply treating it as an exhaustible collection of raw materials.

The truth is that we don’t really have much choice, though. Humans are ascendant in the Anthropocene, more successful than any other species that has ever lived on the Earth. We rule the planet, but we remain dependent on it. That’s a humbling thought.