There is surely nothing more thought-provoking in Footprints than the very concept of a ‘future fossil’. The notion that, one day, thousands or perhaps millions of years from now, the world as we know it will be wiped from existence, leaving behind mere remnants of contemporary life.
‘Footprints is my attempt to discover how we will be remembered by the very deep future,’ explains literature academic David Farrier. Starting with the discovery in Norfolk of fossilised human footprints dating back 850,000 years, he undertakes a globe-trotting exercise to imagine what information we will leave for our descendants, hundreds or even thousands of generations forward in time.
Predictably, the results are not great. The fossil record from the early 21st century is likely to be one compacted with everything from ash released by the burning of fossil fuels, to millions of pieces of colourful plastic, to the dark sediment that clogs up the remains of dead coral reefs.
Megacities home to tens of millions will be crushed into an ‘urban stratum’ of broken concrete and glass, stained red by leaching iron from ageing steel. ‘After one hundred million years, what remains of New York or Mumbai may be a deposit no thicker than the shallow end of a swimming pool,’ he muses.
What is certainly remarkable is how significantly we have already made our mark on the planet. From the massive release of prehistoric carbon into the atmosphere, to the dumping of radioactive material in the South Pacific and elsewhere, to the hundreds of thousands of pieces of microscopic space junk orbiting around the Earth, humanity has baked in changes that will take many millennia at least to return to a pre-Anthropocentric state.
‘Our future fossils are our legacy and therefore our opportunity to choose how we will be remembered,’ writes Farrier. ‘They will record whether we carried on heedlessly despite the dangers we knew to lie ahead, or whether we cared enough to change our course.’