Sigurd Olson would be interested in, and perhaps amused by, the scientific controversy over the Anthropocene. The term is based on the belief that humans have made such a powerful mark on the Earth that we have put an end to the Holocene Epoch of the last twelve thousand years (post-Ice Age) and have begun a new epoch: the Anthropocene.
Of course, not just anyone can make such an epochal decision. The official geologic time chart is kept by the International Commission on Stratigraphy. In May, a working group of scientists voted to prepare a formal proposal to the commission by 2021 advocating the change. The group says the Anthropocene Epoch’s beginning should be placed “in the mid-twentieth century,” according to the journal Nature, “when a rapidly rising human population accelerated the pace of industrial production, the use of agricultural chemicals and other human activities. At the same time, the first atomic-bomb blasts littered the globe with radioactive debris that became embedded in sediments and glacial ice, becoming part of the geologic record.”
The proposal has strong detractors. “The Anthropocene is a Joke,” shouted the headline of an article in The Atlantic. Click-bait. And it worked on me. The article, however, proved worth reading. As Peter Brannen points out,
These are unusual claims about geology, a field that typically deals with mile-thick packages of rock stacked up over tens of millions of years, wherein entire mountain ranges are born and weather away to nothing within a single unit of time, in which extremely precise rock dates—single-frame snapshots from deep time—can come with 50,000-year error bars, a span almost 10 times as long as all of recorded human history. If having an epoch shorter than an error bar seems strange, well, so is the Anthropocene.
So what to make of this new “epoch” of geological time? Do we deserve it? Sure, humans move around an unbelievable amount of rock every year, profoundly reshaping the world in our own image. And, yes, we’re currently warping the chemistry of the atmosphere and oceans violently, and in ways that have analogues in only a few terrifying chapters buried deep in Earth’s history. Each year we spew more than 100 times as much CO2 into the air as volcanoes do, and we’re currently overseeing the biggest disruption to the planet’s nitrogen cycle in 2.5 billion years. But despite this incredible effort, all is vanity. Very little of our handiwork will survive the obliteration of the ages. If 100 million years can easily wear the Himalayas flat, what chance will San Francisco or New York have?
Much of the article walks the reader through the depths of geologic time, highlighting the sheer enormity of it, and the passing fancy that we call human civilization. On geologic scale, the industrial era is a wisp of smoke. Literally smoke, perhaps, but nevertheless a wisp.
Sigurd Olson’s view
Sigurd Olson addressed the issue in his book Open Horizons long before anyone thought of the term “Anthropocene.” At first blush you might think he’d agree with today’s proponents of the term:
Sigurd, like Brannen, knew that humans are “profoundly reshaping the world in our own image,” so dramatically as to appear like a geological force. But Sigurd knew geologic history well. Earlier in Open Horizons he dedicated a chapter to it, and later in life said the main lesson of the ancient greenstone throughout his beloved canoe country was “the relative insignificance of man as he lives along these ancient formations.” Would humans discover humility in time? Sigurd wrote,
I think Sigurd would be amused by the spectacle of arguing scientists, because he understood science is a sometimes messy business conducted by people who love to challenge each other. He surely would be sympathetic to the hopes of Anthropocene advocates who want to draw attention to what we are doing to our one and only planet. But I suspect he would agree with Peter Brannen, who concludes:
The idea that we’re in a new epoch is a profoundly optimistic one, for it implies that we’ll persist into the future as an industrial technological civilization on something like a geological timescale. It implies that we are at the dawning of the astrobiologist David Grinspoon’s “Sapiezoic Eon”—that expansive, creative, open-ended future in which human technology represents a new and enduring feature of the planet on par with the biological innovations of the Cambrian Explosion—rather than heading for the impending, terminal consummation of a major mass extinction, ending with all the conclusive destruction of apocalypses past.
Until we prove ourselves capable of an Anthropocene worthy of the name, perhaps we should more humbly refer to this provisional moment of Earth history that we’re living through as we do the many other disruptive spasms in Earth history. Though dreadfully less catchy, perhaps we could call it the “Mid-Pleistocene Thermal Maximum.” After all, though the mammoths are gone, their Ice Age is only on hold, delayed as it is for a few tens of thousands of years by the coming greenhouse fever. Or perhaps we’re living through the “Pleistocene Carbon Isotope Excursion,” as we call many of the mysterious global paroxysms from the earliest era of animal life, the Paleozoic. Or maybe we’re even at the dawning of the “Quaternary Anoxic Event” or, God forbid, the “End-Pleistocene Mass Extinction” if shit really hits the fan in the next few centuries. But please, not the Anthropocene. You wouldn’t stand next to a T. rex being vaporized 66 million years ago and be tempted to announce to the dawning of the hour-long Asteroidocene. You would at least wait for the dust to settle before declaring the dawn of the age of mammals.
The idea of the Anthropocene inflates our own importance by promising eternal geological life to our creations. It is of a thread with our species’ peculiar, self-styled exceptionalism—from the animal kingdom, from nature, from the systems that govern it, and from time itself. This illusion may, in the long run, get us all killed. We haven’t earned an Anthropocene epoch yet. If someday in the distant future we have, it will be an astounding testament to a species that, after a colicky, globe-threatening infancy, learned that it was not separate from Earth history, but a contiguous part of the systems that have kept this miraculous marble world habitable for billions of years.
Photo: Wildfires in western Canada brought eye-burning smoke and hazy sunsets to northern Minnesota in August 2018.
This post is about scientific truth, as well as humility, and therefore fits best in the gold portion of the singing wilderness spiritual map.