The new epoch is Anthropocene
The declaration of a new age or era is a popular tactic for those keen to make the invisible visible and promote change; this tactic works in all cultures. Naming things is not simply a symbolic act; well-chosen names are deeply somatic in their effects. Hopefully this can be utilised for positive ecological outcomes.
In the recent past there have been many attempts to re-label current times – the idea that we are now living in a Trump era, for example, or that in Australia we once lived in a Menzies era. There is no end to the imaginative way that political journalists and commentators can coin terms to give ambit claims more authority. The idea that we are globalised or that we are modern or late modern or post-modern are other examples; really, the wonderful thing about the English language is that the invention of new terms is just part of daily life. One might call this a kind of ‘branding’ or commodification – acts that extend beyond popular culture into academic and professional cultures as the labelling of new specialisms, disciplines, and expertises. Such semiotic activity is important and not to be dismissed as merely symbolic or promotional: new names also provide a new focus for the various overlapping audiences that constitute contemporary cultures, and enable new process of identification to occur.
Given that humanity is in an ecologically precarious situation, ‘we’ need, as a matter of urgency, to seriously think not only about the kind of world we live in, and the kind of future world/s humanity is likely to inherit, but also about the appropriate naming of these situations. As the title of this blog suggests, Anthropocene is the best way of describing where we are, and where we will likely continue to be. Even though this name is called an ‘epoch’ by scientists – referring to a geological time span of 10,000 years – the great length of time potentially involved emphasises the idea that we have now arrived at a new ‘ground zero’. It is particularly important that this realisation is not a narrowly ideological claim – hopefully the facts involved are believable because they are science based.
In some ways the advent of the Anthropocene, coming after such previously long epochs, is even more stupendous than the arrival at something potentially short lived – like ‘modernism’, ‘late modernism’ or ‘post-modernism’. Undoubtedly specialists will go on to claim that we are still late modern, post-Trump, or even post-modern; so far, the collective focus that these terms have encouraged amounts to the rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic. In contrast, as we are beginning to appreciate, ecological, geological and archaeological contexts can encourage much needed inquiry into human survival issues such as climate change, and over-population.
However, whether we designate our changed times as an epoch, era or age, there is no way out: the world is now dominated by humanity and technology, and will continue to be so into the foreseeable future. The best way of describing this situation is the term Anthropocene – basically meaning the new geological epoch of a planet remade by ‘man’, or more specifically, we are in a new geological epoch caused by the all-pervasive activities of humanity. Even if new technology, or even humanity, becomes more ecological in orientation, the fate of Earth will still be human domination. We do not know whether human life can survive on a planet without its traditionally diverse and resilient ecology. But the naming of things will always be important, and hopefully the idea of Anthropocene can inject a new sense of agency and responsibility into discourses that are either in denial of climate change and its effects, or remain intransigent about the rights of humanity on a finite planet shared with many other life forms.
Whether or not an international committee of geologists can agree that Anthropocene should replace Holocene as the name of our current geological epoch doesn’t ultimately matter, of course. The basic fact that the effects of human activity on Earth are now detectable as planet wide geological depositions – of radioactive elements, toxic chemicals, plastics and other human made products that come underneath (as it were) global warming and climate change - and cannot be undone by refusal to rename the obvious. Ultimately these facts will drive some form of new labelling that is more appropriate than the semiotic vacuum that currently defies the monumental ecological changes that are occurring on Earth. Indeed, apart from a few Australian politician ‘holdouts’ there appears to be now an effective global consensus that these planet changing human effects are real; ‘anthropocenic’ claims have been well documented elsewhere – see for example publications of the Working Group on the Anthropocene (see ‘The Anthropocene epoch; scientists declare dawn of human influenced age’, www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/august/29 . . .). Interestingly enough, Australian scientists and allied experts have been strongly involved in making the case (see, for example, Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth, Polity, 2017; see also ‘The Anthropocene: A New World Epoch?’ in the essay section of this website, March 2017; and ‘Anthropocene’, https://en.wikipedia.org). As suggested, naming an era is only important in drawing attention to what is, in the hope that refocussed attention may cause some positive change at a time when forward movement now may translate into better crisis management in the future. Renaming the increasingly obvious is still worth pursuing, even if there can be no final ‘solution’.
It is important that the idea Anthropocene epoch is accepted as an appropriate label by a wide range of specialists. The problem with the existing array of competing terms (specifically modern, late modern, high modern, and post-modern) is that all these terms have been appropriated by competing specialists keen to assert ‘ownership’ for ideological and commercial ends. And consequently these terms are often lampooned in popular culture. Yet Anthropocene still needs to make good sociological and historical sense; that is, the term needs to be defined in contexts broader than those of the natural sciences (in geological, archaeological, paleontological, etc. disciplines and specialisms), while escaping the charge that it is narrowly scientific. Some sociologists once referred to homo faber to indicate that the human species ‘made’ things (eg. Erich Fromm). Today the idea of human dominance over all other species, at the expense of planetary ecosystems, needs to extend over and beyond the attractively simple ideas that humanity is creative and inventive (and necessarily a force for the ultimate good of the planet). In the case of Anthropocene, natural scientists have done the ‘heavy lifting’. Sociologists no longer need to make a case about human domination: the evidence is literally beneath our feet and in all other environments. Even politicians have to think twice about that, before laughing the evidence off as the work of mad extremists determined to lower standards of living in the interests of socialism.
If there can be any doubt about the status of human dominance on Earth it might also be said that the remorseless pressures for economic growth at any cost can only stimulate the remaking of the planet by technological means. Short of curbing already vast excesses of consumption, pollution, human populations and economic activity, we have definitely gone beyond the point where Earth might become a green and pleasant land well served by an ecologically centred humanity. That is now just mythology.
We might wonder whether an era defined by the increasingly globalised industrial capitalism of the last two hundred years or so has radically changed. Arguably, the ecological impacts of a relatively unfettered capitalism have irrevocably changed everything. There is no escape from global ecological change. Now we are moving into a future on Earth that is so dominated by human activity that the management of global ecology is becoming a major survival issue. This was not previously a big issue for industrialists, governments or national populations who were simply able to assume that the air, ocean and earth were infinite in capacity to absorb and recycle the works of man. How things have changed. We definitely need a new name for our new totally human dominated world.