By Peter Reason
It was several years ago that I first came across the shocking idea that humans were moving more physical stuff around the planet than the natural processes of volcanos and earthquakes, rivers and tides. In the last few years, the idea of the Anthropocene has engaged both scientists and civil society: human activities have been sufficiently extensive to have moved Earth out of the Holocene, the epoch of the last 10,0000 years, into a new epoch in which human actions have fundamentally impacted planetary dynamics. In (2106) I reviewed Gaia Vince’s award winning book Adventures in the Anthropocene for EarthLines Magazine, and found myself troubled by the lack of fundamental thinking through the implications of statements such as ‘We must choose the kind of nature we want’. I was also troubled by what I saw as the arrogance of the ‘ecomodernist’ gloss (http://www.ecomodernism.org/), the notion that humans can create a ‘good’ or even ‘great’ Anthropocene—a perspective that seemed to imply we could get ourselves out of the ecological mess we have created through ‘more of the same’, which offended against my understanding of system dynamic.
So I was pleased to have the opportunity to hear Clive Hamilton speak at the University of Bristol in the spring of 2017. Hamilton, an Australian ‘public intellectual’, Professor of Public Ethics at Charles Stuart University in Canberra, has been central to the debate about the nature, meaning and implications of the Anthropocene, writing a series of books that have both stimulated and infuriated readers. He describes this latest book, Defiant Earth (Polity Press, 2017), as ‘groping toward understanding what it means… to have arrived at this point in history’.
Chapter One sets out three ideas clearly. First is that the Anthropocene names a very recent rupture in the processes of Earth. There have been various proposals as to when the new epoch started: some argue that humans have always been ‘world-making’ species, certainly since the invention of agriculture; others point to its origins in the carbon-based economy of the Industrial Revolution. Hamilton dates the ‘turning point in the sweep of Earth’s history’ (4) to the ‘great acceleration’ that followed the Second World War, when resource use and waste volumes took a sharp upturn. This rupture is therefore recent in human history and far more so in planetary history. And it is permanent: human actions—not least the massive redistribution of carbon into the atmosphere—will impact on the planet for millennia to come. It is unlikely that Earth will ever return to an epoch as benign for the development of civilization as the Holocene.
This leads to the second big idea, that the Anthropocene brings together human history with Earth history for the first time, so that the future of Earth depends not just on ‘natural’ processes, but on decisions that are volitional, made by humankind aware of its action and their consequences. Earth and human history are entangled as never before, and the future course of the Anthropocene depends in part on human impacts on the Earth system that have not yet occurred (7)
The third big idea is that the transition we must grasp is that the Anthropocene is not just a re-naming of ecological concerns that have troubled at least some since the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, but rather a rupture in the process of a entity newly discovered by scientific research which he terms the Earth System—a concept envisioned to capture the qualitative leap from disturbances in ecosystems to disruption in the whole planet (13) and the co-evolution of its ‘spheres’—the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, the cryosphere, the biosphere and the lithosphere. It was not even possible to think in such terms before the arrival of a ‘new scientific paradigm’ which has it roots in the systems modeling of the Meadows and his colleagues in The Limits to Growth; in the Gaia hypothesis proposed by James Lovelock and Lyn Margulis; and more recently on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; emerging fully at the turn of this century as the ‘integrative meta-science of the whole planet understood as a unified, complex, evolving system beyond the sum of its parts’ (11-12).