Andrey Belkov, A fork (2011), All Rights Reserved
I LIVE IN A SUPERFUND site. So do you, no matter where you live. Despite environmental laws older than I am and the migration of U.S. heavy industry overseas, the toxic impacts of modern human life touch every inch of the U.S. And it's not just the U.S., it's North America, it's Asia, it's Antarctica, every inch of everywhere really — even the organic detoxification spas across California. Welcome to the Anthropocene, or "age of man."
We move more earth and stone than all the world's rivers. We are changing the chemistry of the atmosphere all life breathes. We are on pace to eat to death half of the other life currently sharing the planet with us. There is nothing on Earth untouched by man — whether it be the soot from fossil fuels darkening polar snows or the very molecules incorporated into a tree trunk. Humanity has become a global force whose exploits will be written in rock for millennia.
We can think of our Anthropocene as a steam-punk thing, only as old as James Watt's invention of a practical coal-burning steam engine way back in 1776. Or we can see it stretch back millions of years to when early Homo sapiens may have driven large carnivores like sabre-tooth tigers to extinction. Still, nothing compares to the Atomic Age, which spread rare, long-lived elements across the planet — a unique human signature. And our mark will remain in the atmosphere for tens of thousands of years, elevated levels of carbon dioxide keeping the planet warmer than it would otherwise be. If people, plants or animals don't like the climate in 2100, 2500 or even 25000 they will have us to blame.
As a writer who covers the Anthropocene, I follow all the talk, and it’s hard to think of another area of scientific inquiry where there is so much doubt, and, in fact, straight rejection, of the proofs we have been seeing. The apparently opposing realms of science and fiction have never been more intertwined.
Naturally, much of the writing on the Anthropocene is, was, and will always be in the realm of so-called scientific literature. The ultimate significance of the proofs laying out in minute detail how carbon from the Cretaceous is changing seashells in the Pacific today, among other enlightenments, remains unknown. But what people choose to believe (or not believe) will likely have a tremendous impact on the future of the planet.
In literary terms, Bill McKibben's 1989 The End of Nature represents a modern turning point in the writing of the Anthropocene. The book marks the beginning of a single life form coming to consciousness about its own efforts at terraforming terra herself. (The algae, as in all things, got there first — billions of years ago — but, presumably, they didn't fill the atmosphere with oxygen consciously.)
The epic philosophical battles of the early environmental movement — Gifford Pinchot and the national parks versus John Muir and wilderness for wilderness's sake...read more