Geological epochs and ages are concepts that are not usually found in most people’s vocabularies, but, the author, Christian Schwagërl, believes that they should be. The history of our Planet can be described as a series of successive epochs, each one characterizing the planetary conditions and the nature of its life forms, but since epochs have the time scale of only tens of millions, larger units are necessary to characterize the whole 4.7 billion year history of our planet, Earth. The Earth has been around for about 4 eons or 10 eras, or 22 periods, each unit being a subunit for the next larger one (Cohen et al., 2013). Each successive division can be distinguished from the previous older one by the character of rock strata and the form of fossil remains. On this scale, living organisms showed up during the first eon, about 4 billion years ago (de Duve, 1995). What happened for the next almost 4 billion years has interested geologists and paleontologists, but not too many others.
Maybe I spoke too quickly. We are fascinated by creatures like dinosaurs and early ancestors of our species, Homo sapiens, but not by too many of the early forms of life that inhabited, but did not walk upon the Earth because they lived in the seas. Our interests start to perk up when we begin to probe our own origins. We must jump way ahead to about 2.5 million years ago when the first evidence of the Genus, Homo, have been found. We would not easily recognize these first hominids because their anatomies were not like ours. It took until about 200,000 years ago for our species to evolve to the anatomical form we would recognize today. On the epochal scale of the International Commission of Stratigraphy this would be late in the Upper Pleistocene epoch. But we have to look to an even later time for the kind of human history that interests more of us than just the paleontologists. That would be the time when significant human culture arose, when our ancestors started to develop tools and settled into what we might call organized communities.
It is not clear when this last period began, but most authorities place it at 50–80,000 years ago, as the last major ice age was drawing to a close. The world we would call our own took shape as the ice age vanished and a new epoch, the Holocene, started around 12,000 years ago. Virtually all we know as culture that evolved to become our modern world developed during this period of relatively stable geological conditions. It took a proverbial change in the weather to create the planetary conditions that have enabled us to live as we do today. The Holocene took its shape without the influence of human cultural life, but as we have become more numerous and technologically oriented, we have begun to change these conditions so much that Schwagërl, following the work of Paul Crutzen and others, argues that we are entering a new epoch, the Anthropocene, named to reflect the human hand at work in the change.
This short introduction of the geological history of the Planet should leave you with the understanding that it took an epochal change for life, as we know it, to arise. As we are beginning to observe the transition to a new epoch we are significantly influencing, many new ethical and practical questions confront us. Schwagërl’s, The Anthropocene, provides us a science journalist’s view of these questions and his thoughts about what kind of response is called for. He draws heavily on the work of Paul Crutzen, a Nobel-winning scientist, recognized for his contributions to the team that discovered the cause of the ozone hole. Crutzen, at a meeting in Mexico in 2000, used the word, Anthropocene, to emphasize his belief that we are entering a new epoch, triggered by human interactions with the planetary system. After introducing us to Crutzen, Schwagërl spends several chapters elaborating our geological history and the system of epochal identification.
It is important to note that the idea of the Anthropocene is just that, an idea. The International Commission on Stratigraphy (the official body that names geological time periods) has not agreed with Crutzen and others, and won’t be able to for another few thousand years or at least until the change is recorded in the characteristics of the earth’s surface. Schwagërl, like Crutzen, believes that a new name of our time on the Planet might and should wake people up, first, to an awareness that we are, indeed, changing our life support system, and second, to the need to adapt our ways of life. Much of the rest of the book is devoted to the second part, discussion about how we can and should adapt. Unlike many doomsayers, people he disagrees with, Schwagërl takes a positive stance of the future. He says:
I believe the Anthropocene idea can help people see themselves as active, integrated participants in an emerging new nature that will make earth more humanist rather than just humanized. It would be absurd if an idea named the Anthropocene were characterized by a negative view of humans (p. 33).
The book is primarily a collection of facts and opinions, rather than an independent, ab initio analysis. This is not meant to be a criticism, only a description of the book. There are nearly 500 footnotes referring to the work of others, about 2 per page. Early on, Schwagërl points to four factors that are arguably causing the shift:
Every human act changes the world in the Anthropocene, he writes. It always did, but without the visible consequences we are observing. Further he says there is no inside and outside in the old sense of nature as existing outside of the human world; there is only the “great inside” (p. 45). I don’t quite agree; we have always been a part of, not outside of, the rest of the world whether it is called nature or some other word. It’s only the modern Cartesian duality that produces this apparent arbitrary boundary, but that has let us hack away at the world without noticing it. Schwagërl, here and elsewhere, is not always clear about this relationship, but writes effectively about the possibility that simply using a new word for the geological world may make this arbitrary bound begin to disappear.
After summing up all the current environmental problems that are defining the new epoch, Schwagërl offers us an interesting hypothesis, asking what if the transition could trigger a “results-oriented project.” The project would include some forum “in which all cultures have equal validity and all people are treated equally” (p. 65). Against this hope for an ethical resurgence in the name of the Anthropocene, he notes that others see it as a call for more technocracy. Proponents of geo-engineering have been pushing their ideas for quite a while. Even Crutzen was an early proponent of injecting aerosol-forming sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere to increase the albedo and reflect more of the Sun’s energy back into space, thus cooling the Earth. It appears to me, after reading the entire text, that the idea of the Anthropocene is not yet compelling enough to coalesce a critical mass of concern around any single course of action. We are still at a point portrayed by Abraham Maslow in a now famous line, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail” (Maslow, 1966). Every discipline or specialty sees the answer in doing more of whatever they do.
He included a whole chapter, with the catchy title “Apocalypse No,” with arguments against doomsayers. Doomsday proponents can and do catch people's attention, but do not create the positive set of actions necessary to cope with the forecasted events. He writes:
“Apocalypse No” means believing in people and a long-term future on earth. We are not intrinsically Nature’s enemy, as many environmentalists want us to believe. Instead we are the medium through which life becomes aware of itself and transforms into something new, in a conscious way, not undirected evolution but by “a process that reflects upon itself.”
He follows this immediately with, “This reflecting process has not yet matured.” For the whole of the Modern cultural era we humans have been hell-bent on destroying the Planet and dominating other humans. We cannot reflect for more than a millisecond. Maybe his words get distorted in translation, but I find this kind of writing unconvincing. Later in the chapter, he writes, “Quintessentially people are learners. So why shouldn’t a planet dominated by living people not evolve well.” I would ask him, “Why should it?” Or, “Have we done such a good job so far?” As a journalist, he is quite competent; as a futurologist, not so much.
In the next chapter with another cute title, “The Invironment,” he writes that in the coming epoch there will be no inside and outside to the environment. We will simply be inside, continually changing what had been an image of a pristine, wild nature. Nature will lose its historic sense and turn into something “shaped by humanity” (p. 110). It “is emerging in new places, mostly in cities” (p. 114). I think he is missing a point or making a distinction that really doesn’t matter. If we are inside of something, that is, a part of what has been called environment, the notion of nature has no meaning. It might be better to simply call the totality of the objects outside the human body, world. For social constructionists like me, this change would collapse the two spheres that make human life possible: the social/cultural meaning-giving system and the biophysical life-support system.
His chapter on technology portrays the dominating power of modern technology, but presents it in a way that would raise the hackles of any sociologist of technology, writing, “Today we still think technology is something that exists separately from nature. But this is not true. Technology comes from the earth’s crust; it is a fusion of intellect and geology” (p. 133). I find this a strange combination of categories somehow related to the origins of the word, technology. Technē was an ancient Greek term for an art or craft, and was later used to refer to instrumental reasoning. This is but one of many confusing constructions that pervade the book. I see them as errors from my technical viewpoint, but some are due to the translator and others reflect his deliberate stylistic usages. It’s important to remember that Schwagërl is a journalist writing about a largely set of technical and philosophical issues.
So it is with his discussion of evolution or, should I say, with a new, human directed evolution. I am not sure why this discussion appears in the book. I suppose it’s here because at the end of the Anthropocene some many, many years from now, stratigraphers will demarcate it by new species found in its remains. He takes the creation of new life forms for granted, but argues that, “If mankind wants to create synthetic life, the first creature resulting from this should not be an industrial product” (p. 165). Again, I have to ask, “Why not?” His answer is straight from the pen of a Romantic poet, and doesn’t work here. “It should drift like a tender nymph from the brain of scientists and be an inspirational, artisan marvel rather than a kind of replacement drug for our addiction to cheap energy.” He is referring to a project in which Craig Venter did recently create a man-made cell and announced this could be the first step toward solving our “energy problem.” I, along with many, many others, question the practical and ethical benefits of artificial life, but his treatment floats a bit in the air.
In chapter 9, he raises ethical issues of great importance, particularly criticizing the modern Cartesian, reductionist models of the world for leaving nature out of an ethical framework, leaving, he writes: “no provision for the dignity of nature” (p. 171). For me, this is the most important point in the entire book, but gets lost in the flow. Out of the many, many causes that Schwagërl invokes for the predicament we are observing, I believe the argument boils down to an ethical one. As humans evolved during the Holocene, the associated body of ethics in the Western world focused almost entirely on behavior within social activities, but left out interactions with the rest of the world. In essence, we could do anything to it without being concerned in an ethical sense. In the Anthropocene where humans and the world are inescapably intertwined, a new ethic is required: one that incorporates both humans and the world that envelops them, but on equal footing. If this were to happen, many of the suggestions made that haven’t yet happened might come to be.
I haven’t commented on every chapter; there are too many: twelve plus a prologue and an epilogue. I have tried to extract enough to present the flavor of the book. There are many, too many facts, about what seems to be happening to us to select the most germane. The book is best read without trying to assimilate these as discrete entities. I found the impact of their totality more important. Most readers will already know many of the facts, but will not have been affected by their combined weight. For this reason alone, the book is worth a read.
Schwagërl takes a very positive stance throughout the book, even as he incorporates arguments being made by the doomsayers. I find this a bit naive and smacking of wishful thinking. Epochal transitions have always meant catastrophe to some features of the geological and biological Earth. So would this one as the early signs of change are already indicating. As he writes, the name itself has been criticized as focusing too much on humans; all previous names are merely descriptive, not related to any causal factors. I am not concerned with that, and believe that arguments about the name, per se, are only a distraction. We would be in the same predicament if this new epoch were to be called the Smithocene or Marxocene.
There is little new here for anyone who has been following the plight of the earth, but would be an excellent source for others. The author’s editorializing generally, as I noted, takes a positive view of the situation. Let’s use the presumptive change as an opportunity to act. Nice thinking, but we have been aware of these changes occurring for some time without associated significant action. That little or nothing has been done to intervene in the change process is noted at many places in the book, but Schwagërl offers little in the way of mechanisms or processes to ignite the actions he proposes. The book fails as a guide for activists; there are far too many shoulds, mights, oughts, and similar words and phrases that argue for action but point to areas where such action has already been called for yet hasn’t happened.
Having provided us with a myriad of facts about what is happening to our Planet, he could have been considerably more terse in his causal explanations and moralizing by simply referring to two highly authoritative sources, Pogo and Aldo Leopold. Pogo’s famous words, “We have met the enemy and it is us,” (Kelly, 1953), capture much of his argument for why we are facing the possibility of an epochal change. As far as offering an ethical foundation, the starkness of Leopold’s Land Ethic is far more effective as a guide for action than anything I found in the book. Leopold wrote in 1949, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise” (Leopold, 1949, p. 224). He argued that such an ethic would change “the role of Home sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it” (Leopold, 1949, p. 204). Recalling and citing these wise creatures (an animal and a man) would have had much more impact than the single sentence, penultimate paragraph in the Epilogue, “At my kitchen table, Paul Crutzen has a hopeful message: ‘We are not doomed.’” I am delighted with this prediction, but not sure what to do about it even after 227 pages.
© 2015 Ehrenfeld This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
1. The Anthropocene would not be the first epoch to be created by the evolution of new life forms. About a million years after the Earth was formed, oxygen-producing bacteria started to change the atmosphere to the composition that supports us and other life.
2. For the younger readers who never chuckled over Pogo and his chums, he was a comic strip opossum, created by Walt Kelly. Pogo entertained and challenged us from the late 40’s to about 1975. This line was first found in "A Word to the Fore" the foreword of The Pogo Papers (Kelly, 1953).
Cohen KM, Finney SC, Gibbard PL, Fan J-X. 2013. The ICS International Chronostratigraphic Chart. Episodes 36(3): 199–204.
de Duve C. 1995. The Beginnings of Life on Earth. Am Sci 83(5): 428–437.
Kelly W. 1953. The Pogo Papers . New York: Simon and Schuster.
Leopold A. 1949. A Sand County Almanac . New York: Oxford University.
Maslow AH. 1966. The Psychology of Science: A Reconnaissance . New York: Harper & Row: pp. 15–16.