Welcome to the Anthropocene
By David BielloJune 20, 2012
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 — prefigured these more modern musings. Or Tertullian's elegiac words upon surveying the barren fields of what had once been the granary of Carthage in North Africa 2,000 years ago. Regardless, it becomes untenable to argue Muir's position if there is no wilderness left, and the Romantic movement's idolization of "Nature" with a capital N comes crashing to the ground.
Instead, what we have today is a rambunctious garden, in the fine phrase of Emma Marris, whose book of the same title lays out a scientific (and literary) argument for direct intervention in nature, rather than the unwitting meddling we currently employ. Then there are tomes like Richard Alley's Earth: An Operator's Manual (certainly useful if we are going to truly take over), which note that we can thank fossil fuels for the fact that there are still any whales in the world's oceans.
As in all things, however, it is up to fiction — make-believe, imagination, speculative play — to really show us what the Anthropocene could be. And it is in science fiction that the Anthropocene often plays out, most recently perhaps in Paolo Bacigalupi's The Windup Girl, which depicts a Bangkok post-apocalypse, with high sea levels kept out by dikes, an absence of fossil fuels replaced by manually wound springs to run robots or sailing ships, and the routine use of genetic modification and warfare. It is typical of the genre, which features, above all, doom. Yet, in all this dystopia — albeit resilient dystopia where humanity endures against all odds — can no one imagine hope?
The late, great Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles is a novel set entirely on Mars, but the allegory points directly back to Earth. In a brief sketch called “The Green Morning,” a Martian settler arrives only to be told by a doctor that the planet’s notoriously thin air may force him to return to Earth. Disappointment and his pained lungs nearly shatter this man. But instead of leaving, he has a vision: “He looked down at his hands and turned them over. He would plant trees and grass. That would be his job, to fight against the very thing that might prevent his staying here.” And so the man, on a single motorcycle, becomes the alien planet’s Johnny Appleseed. The trees come, another sign of Bradbury's legendary optimism. Some sixty years after this story was written, there is no question the air is ours on this planet, as is the fate of the trees.
Bradbury insisted he was not a hard science fiction author, but instead a writer of fantasy. Ultimately, I'd argue the Anthropocene needs a non-fantastic literature that directly grapples with the problem of managing a planet so that it can remain the sole (known) home in the universe capable of providing life support and a passage through the void to a rich array of animals, plants, minerals, microbes and more. This literature will need Bradbury’s optimism and imagination, heralding a new “green morning,” rather than the end of nature we find in Blade Runner's dystopian portrait of a world whose only hope lies in migration to other presumably, less ruined planets or Frankenstein's suggestion that we will be undone by our own creation.
This is certainly what I strive for in my own writing and reporting. It is far less interesting to write about all the ways the world is wrong than all the potential solutions, or at least that's how I feel after years spent like a doctor delivering cancer diagnoses day after day. Even in the heart of the most cancerous situation — the Gowanus Canal, where I live, the Superfund site — there is still beauty and hope to be found. Plants carve a roothold in the canal's collapsing wooden walls, jellyfish pulse beneath kaleidoscopic oil slicks, and green algae blooms in the fecund waters (thanks to occasional pulses of sewage overflow). One day, oysters the size of dinner plates could return. Gliding in a canoe through this toxic waterway, among the most polluted in the country, if not the world, affords a unique perspective on nature's resilience as well as humanity's. After all, the Gowanus would not have become a Superfund site — and thereby on the way to a cleaner future — if not for those of us who wanted to use it for something different than a flushing tunnel for waste. The same is true for the Los Angeles River, or countless other waterways that could be reimagined. Things can get better, and there's a large portion of humanity working towards that these days, a global hive mind connected by the internet. In the end, science will give us clues and cues for the pathways that will either save or destroy us, but it is our own imagination that will light the way.
There is no other planet like Earth, no other home than the one we now run, so Superfund sites have to be super fun. The most important literature we write in the Anthropocene will be the words that enable us to ensure breathable air, drinkable water, nutritious food, and the persistence of the abundant life that makes it all possible on this rocky mothership. We'll also need a robust history to keep us honest, a project that bit rot and digital demise may make impossible. Otherwise, we'll face the kind of Swiftian modest proposals showcased by authors like Bacigalupi — repugnant ideologies advanced under the guise of rationality. We need an enduring, resilient, hopeful literature for the Anthropocene. Anyone for a new Bible?
David Biello is an associate editor at Scientific American and has been covering energy and the environment for nearly a decade. He is also host of 60-Second Earth, a Scientific American podcast covering environmental news, and is working on a documentary with Detroit Public Television on the future of electricity.
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