Utne Blogs > Mind the Gap

Mind the Gap

Utne Reader Editor in Chief Christian Williams on finding common ground politically, spiritually and culturally.

The Silver Lining of the Anthropocene


I like it when a particular word gets stuck in my head, begging me to use it whenever I can. Past recipients of this distinction have been such words as “consequently” and “predilection.” I don’t know what it is exactly about those words, but I love using them. 

Lately, I’ve been knocking around a new word: Anthropocene. I’m guessing many of you have heard this word here or there, but for those that haven’t, it’s an informal term being used by some scientists to describe the new geological epoch.

The general consensus among scientists is that for the last 12,000 years or so, we’ve been living in a period of Earth’s history dubbed the Holocene. On the geological timeline, the end of the last Ice Age ushered in the Holocene, which for most of the last several thousand years has been marked by a fairly stable climate. 

But with the evolution and development of the human race over that same period of time, scientists have noticed some characteristics different from those traditionally used to describe the Holocene, specifically that the Earth is heating up. It’s heating up so much, that it seems necessary to mark the beginning of a new epoch. That new epoch has been dubbed the Anthropocene to signify that we’ve entered the Age of Man. It acknowledges the fact that humans are the likely culprits for the rapid warming of the Earth over the last few hundred years.

When environmentalist and Utne Visionary Bill McKibben wrote The End of Nature in 1989, it served as an introduction to most people that the climate was changing, and that man-made global warming was responsible for it. As a child, my understanding of global warming was simply that the colder places on Earth might be getting warmer. Living near Chicago in January, that didn’t sound so bad to me.

Fortunately, I have a better understanding of global warming now, and recognize that warming the Earth’s atmosphere can drastically change the climate across the world in numerous and immeasurable ways. More importantly, I believe now that this concept isn’t hypothetical—it’s really happening, and faster than many of us expected it to. Depending on where you call home, most of us experienced a taste of it last summer with heat waves, drought, wild fires, and flooding. If my “Holocene” was that period of my life where I spoke of climate change in terms of “ifs” and “maybes,” I’m in the Anthropocene now. And believe it or not, I’m optimistic for the future because of it. 

Humans are stubborn creatures, and usually only change when they’re forced to by circumstances outside of their control. We’re also resourceful and fully capable of adapting. The next 100 years will pose a lot of changes to the ways we live today on every level, from environmental to economic to political. My optimism stems from the notion that many of those changes will strip away our collective ego and allow us to reevaluate what’s really important to us as individuals and as members of the global community.

For all of the pain and suffering we cause ourselves and one another, I still believe in the inherent goodness of man. I lament that it usually takes disaster and tragedy to expose it, but find solace in the fact that when we need to, we step up to the plate. Perhaps then, we’ll finally be ready to listen to all of the brilliant minds of the past who not only warned us about the future, but also equipped us with amazing ideas and solutions to problems we weren’t ready to fix way back when.

It’s too late to save the world we live in today, but that’s OK: this world is unsustainable. Let’s consider the Anthropocene a clean slate, and look forward to making a world that benefits not only humanity, but the Earth, too.

Follow Utne Reader Editor in Chief Christian Williams on Twitter: @cwwilliams 

Image by dsearls, licensed under Creative Commons