Anthropocene: A Very Short Introduction

"Are humans now overwhelming the great forces of nature?”

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That question is central to our age and will likely be the key question facing mankind in the decades to come. Author Erle C. Ellis quotes it in his excellent, concise and foundational book Anthropocene: A Very Short Introduction. (For a “short introduction” it is very long on understanding and meaning.)

Ellis is quoting Will Steffen, Paul Crutzen and John McNeil from their classic 2007 article, in which they laid out their case for a new geologic age, one that for the first time would be created and defined by the activity of just one species: humans.

"Why did humans, alone among species, gain the capacity to transform an entire planet?” asks Ellis. "When did this capacity emerge—and by what mechanism? Are all humans equally a part of this transformation? What evidence is needed to answer such questions?”

Ellis explores these questions in depth, firmly establishing how geologic ages are defined by geologists, before going on to explore why and how the concept of the Anthropocene has been borrowed, expanded, and exploited —  some would say co-opted — by a multitude of interest groups on all sides.   

"More broadly,” Ellis continues, "what does it mean to be human when this means to be part of a global force that changes everything—even the future of an entire planet? What does nature even mean in an age of humans?”

As a result, three-quarters of the terrestrial biosphere has been transformed directly and indirectly by human use of land.
— Erle C. Ellis

Consequences tumble out of this thinking like apples bouncing away from an upended bushel basket. Does nature still exist?  Or is it just the parts of the planet humans haven’t plundered — yet. Was agriculture (fount of all food blessings) the happy consequence of a Goldilocks climate era (the Holocene) that is now (sadly) ended? Does this arcane geological academic readjustment also mean real everyday change in our world? Is this just geologists bickering for fun (and funding?) Or is this the end of “life as we know it?"

Can there be such a thing as a “good Anthropocene?” Advocates of this ilk (ecomodernists, for example) think much will change but that this marks the point where humans take full responsibility for the future of the planet — and grow up as a species. Rubbish, say the Clive Hamilton’s of the world. The Anthropocene is unmitigated disaster, a cliff we are foolishly rushing towards at our planetary peril. Turn back, at all costs; there is no such thing as a good Anthropocene, says Hamilton and his cadre.

"Beyond the science, the few alert to the plight of the Earth sense that something unfathomably great is taking place, conscious that we face a struggle between ruin and the possibility of some kind of salvation," writes Hamilton in Defiant Earth.

Meanwhile, the Anthropocene idea has taken on the life of a viral internet meme, the "Grumpy Cat” of environmental debate. With that popularity has come polarization. One side bandies “Anthropocene” about like a catch-all epithet for either the sins of human hubris. The other side sees it as one more (probably liberal) swipe at established order being crammed down their throats (along with a whole raft of other disagreeable prescriptions for maladies they don’t believe in.)

Ellis pretty much covers the waterfront of this noir whodunit. (Did they find a body? Is there a smoking gun?) But he does it with lucid, approachable prose, with clarity, and with the firm foundation of scientific rigor. All in a book that is short enough that won’t feel tempted to skip to the ending to see how it turns out.

Takeaway for Students

How it all turns out is the stuff of our age. Any journalist or photographer beginning their career will be encountering these issues and questions for decades to come. Smart storytellers are building whole careers right now by diving into this great revolution. (They also understand that while climate change is a sure bet for a story pitch, it is but one of several interconnected expressions of the epic drama of human dominance of Earth.)

Before I see you next time read “Anthropocene: A Very Short Introduction.” We’ve got a lot to talk about.