Google will tell you that the Anthropocene is “relating to or denoting the current geological age, viewed as the period during which human activity has been the dominant influence on climate and the environment.” I suppose that’s as good a starting point as any to do a little deconstruction work. But what does the concept really communicate? What do we see, who comes to mind, when we think of the Anthropocene?
I should begin by saying this delineation of a new/current geological age is still highly contested. Not everyone in the scientific community is convinced, yet much of the bickering has to do more with ‘when’ it begins than whether to use the term at all. Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer (2000) were among the first to use the term, and suggested an origin point of the late 18th century–right around the time Benjamin Franklin and friends declared independence from England, and Adam Smith (Scottish) wrote the Wealth of Nations. William Ruddiman (2003) counters their origin point by going back as much as 8000 years to locate the beginnings of human meddling in large scale agriculture and subsequent deforestation. Humans have been changing the environment for a very long time–building cities into hillsides, clearing land for grazing and crops, setting fire to whole villages and towns in times of war. Are we really only now realizing that what we do effects change in our surroundings? Yes, and no.
To make a grand sweep and include agricultural development over entire continents dating back thousands of years helps us to recognize that humanity makes an impact wherever it goes. However, it generalizes the extent of the impact and–more importantly–the agents of environmental impact in such a way that blunts the political edge to the notion of the Anthropocene. Not every person, nor every society makes the same kind of impact on their environs. The Anthropocene, for better or worse, is a term embedded and entangled with capitalism, globalization, exploitation, and the commodification of Nature. It is also about the only concept big enough to capture our imaginations, and provide a semiotic web thick enough to divert winds of Progress.
We humans were not around when dinosaurs roamed the earth, but we can go to a natural history museum to see and hear life-sized renderings of tyrannosaurus rex locked in battle with the feisty stegosaurus, and the placid herbivore brontosaurus chewing its cud. These creatures live in our imaginations through toys, television and children’s room decor. From bones to films, the Jurassic age is alive and well. Past is present through a heightened awareness of its extinction.
Now we are in a new age of human technology where, in the U.S. especially, the realm of childhood is increasingly distant from the world our grandparents inhabited. With rapid change, we are constantly negotiating losses and gains. Additional screen time can take away from encountering what is outside our front door, and we are alienated from the ground beneath our feet. Aware of this, many folks have returned to the garden to get their hands dirty, practice a new form of meditation, and connect offline. Here in the Pacific Northwest, going into the woods is a kind of religious practice, accompanied by the daily rituals of recycling and composting. We are aware of our footprints, but still feel powerless in the face of rising tides and swirling islands of plastic, or indignant when we hear of others who do not share the same values.
Human activity has changed, is changing, and will continue to change the most basic elements of our world. We could stop every piece of machinery today and it would still take decades for the air to clear. Hell, the people of Flint, Michigan, still don’t have clean water. So, it makes sense to speak of a geological era meteorically impacted by humans. However, when we say that humans are ruining the earth, we must also keep in mind the following:
Which humans? Individuals? Societies? What parts of the earth? Who lives in those parts? Are those the people ruining their own environment? Who benefits, and for how long? What kind of destruction is taking place? Can recovery happen? What might it look like? How long will it take?
To speak of the Anthropocene is to speak of sin and salvation. We all have sinned against the rest of creation, though not all in the same ways, nor to the same extent. For some, salvation comes in the form of ecologically beneficial technologies. However, if those who develop technology for the sake of profit, then withhold it from the communities who may benefit from it the most, sin is perpetuated. True salvation can only begin through a full conversion to the earth, repenting of the ways in which we are complicit in the earth’s destruction, and lamenting in solidarity with those who bear the burden of capitalist consumption. Let us use our imaginations to take us there and beyond.