Are we now living on ‘the human planet’? Lewis and Maslin are in little doubt. After nearly 300 pages of engaging arguments and snappy graphics, they state: ‘it is safe to conclude that we live in the Anthropocene’. So that’s settled then. More complicated is the discussion over when exactly the Anthropocene began, and what it means for our pre-existing Geological Time Scale. Should we peg it to 1950s nuclear testing? To the coldest recorded part of the Little Ice Age in 1610? Or perhaps to the Columbian Exchange beginning in 1492?
Defining the Anthropocene – often interpreted as an acknowledgement of anthropological climate change – becomes far more complicated when you consider that Homo sapiens haven’t only been altering the climate over the past century or so, but also for roughly 50,000 years prior to that, ever since we began spreading around the globe, wiping out megafauna and our hominin cousins. Emissions from early agriculturalists are believed to have prevented a glacial event 5,000 years ago, while the arrival of Europeans in the Americans 500 years ago led to rampant disease outbreaks and the deaths of an estimated 50 to 80 million people, resulting in rapid reforestation across the continent, with a a significant atmospheric impact. Our recent experiments with coal, oil and gas are just the latest, more intense episode (‘fossil fuel use has created a super-interglacial,’ they argue).
Lewis and Maslin remind us that Victorians confidently spoke of the ‘Anthropozoic epoch’, the significant role of humanity in defining the modern age. Interestingly, scientific achievements throughout history have revolved around diminishing the role of humanity, reducing our species to one strand of a very large web of life. Acknowledging the Anthropocene reverses that. It forces us to accept that, while we may not be inherently special as a species, we have assumed such a position of power that we have almost no choice but to respond appropriately or deal with the consequences. What matters is what kind of story we decide to tell about this epoch, and what kind
of response that turns out to be. As the book makes clear, the radical creation of the Anthropocene can leave us with many more questions than answers.