The rapid increase in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere began with the Industrial Revolution but really kicked in during 1945, with the first nuclear detonations, and has effectively split the planet’s history in two: the initial 4.5 billion years of its existence in thrall to blind natural forces; the remaining five billion, between now and the death of the sun, irrevocably to be governed by human agency, even after our species has expired.
The term ‘Anthropocene’, Hamilton argues, is intended to describe this rupture in the functioning of the Earth System (the notion that the planetis a unified, evolving, complex system rather than an aggregate of individual ecosystems), and only became accepted in the last few decades. Much of Hamilton’s book is geared towards emphasising these definitions, and refuting alternative claims that the Anthropocene is simply the period during which human activity has acted as a major factor in modifying landscape and environment; that it merely acts as a measure of the human footprint, and is thus neutral, if not positively benign.
Having established his ground, he goes on to examine the implications of the new epoch, and the new ways of thinking it demands from us. We are, he explains, in the middle of a power struggle, one in which humans are attempting to drag the Earth into our sphere of influence, but which the Earth is resisting through an increasingly energised climate system: more droughts, storms, heatwaves, and so on. Drawing his observations from the humanities as much as the sciences, Hamilton offers a robust view of the current state of play; not a warning – we’re past that stage – but an attempt at understanding.