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Mind the Gap

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


The Silver Lining of the Anthropocene

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 

stuartgweston
6/28/2014 9:41:02 AM

Great post. Thanks a lot for sharing.


christian williams
10/26/2012 10:22:56 PM

Thanks for the comment, Mr. Cianci. When I wrote that “ we step up to the plate when we need to,” I was thinking specifically of the rescue and recovery efforts that we see with a major disaster, whether it’s an earthquake, tornado, hurricane, tsunami, snow storm – the list goes on an on. On a local level, in such trying circumstances, you see countless examples of people overcoming the barriers you consider unbreachable. I think it’s good to remind people of that because the stark reality of climate change is that it’s already happening, and the wild weather and disasters it causes will increasingly test our mettle. I’m not trying to offer a recipe for collectively avoiding climate change; instead I’m expressing optimism that we’re capable of adjusting and adapting to climate change despite the fact that we failed to stop it.


donato cianci
10/26/2012 7:26:13 PM

What evidence do you have that "when we need to we step up to the plate"? Humans have always destroyed their habitat then moved on. We have not got that option, and nowhere today are humans settling their differences to try to manage environmental disaster collectively. We are hard wired for conflict, short sightedness, and power tripping over others. Sure we can demonstrate compassion and altruism, but never strongly enough to overcome racial barriers, cultural barriers, and the hungry fear manifesting as the will to power and control. Citizens of United States offer no paradigm of competence at getting along with others. They’ve destroyed their resources making useless bling and war materials for out of control population growth, and taught the rest of the world to be addicted to the same behaviour. Humans, particularly in the North America, have always ben a major threat to to other life on the planet, and never so much as today. Your stepping up to the plate metaphor was not well thought out. Even the best batters only get hits about 1/3 of the time, and we need a lot better than that from everybody, including the rich and power hungry, if we are to save ourselves today.