The End of the Anthropocene, a retort to Stewart Brand.
THAT popular science has a difficult relationship with mainstream research is evidenced by the introduction of a term universalised by atmospheric chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen nearly two decades ago, at the turn of the new millennium.
In recent years, the Anthropocene, a period defined by significant human impact on the Earth’s geology and ecosystems, has begun to dislodge the long-held view that we are in an epoch known at the Holocene.
I will argue that not only are we in the early Anthropocene (arguably a sub-feature of the Holocene), but that human impact upon planet Earth, and hence our own habitat and species, requires that we define what it means to be human in rather different terms. And also, that far from being at the beginning of the early Anthropocene, we are instead approaching the end of this epoch. Human habitat, defined as it is by climate, polar ice, glaciation and weather systems (systems that have remained relatively stable for millennia), is entering a period of rapid change. All leading one to question what it is to be human. Changes that could lead to the sixth major mass extinction event, and along with it, not a de-extinction of mammoths, but rather the complete removal of anthropos by the technium as a defining moment of evolution.
A spate of articles on the subject of the Anthropocene followed its introduction, beginning in 2014 Borenstein, Seth (14 October 2014). “With their mark on Earth, humans may name era, too”. Edwards, Lucy E. (30 November 2015). “What is the Anthropocene?”. Eos. 96. Castree, Noel (2015). Associated Press. Waters CN et al. (2016). “The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene”. Science. 351 (6269) and “The Anthropocene: a primer for geographers” (PDF). Geography. 100 part 2: 66.
According to the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS), the professional organization in charge of defining Earth’s time scale, we are still officially in the Holocene epoch, an epoch which began 11,700 years ago after the last major ice age.
“But that label is outdated” writes Joseph Stromberg in the Smithsonian ” They argue for “Anthropocene”—from anthropo, for “man,” and cene, for “new”—because human-kind has caused mass extinctions of plant and animal species, polluted the oceans and altered the atmosphere, among other lasting impacts.”
Coupled with the emergence of this new epoch, used to define human intervention on our planet, has been the concomitant rise of new terms within popular culture to describe human evolution itself. Thus the rise of the cyborg, transhumanism and post-humanism, ‘concepts originating in the fields of science fiction, futurology, contemporary art, and philosophy’ that literally ‘means a person or entity that exists in a state beyond being human’.
The rapidly changing face of humanity caused by new technology and thus the emergent reality of the technium, Kevin Kelly refers to it as the 7th Kingdom of Life, also requires that we redefine what it means to be human.
First let’s breakdown the distinction between the two epochs:
It is accepted by the International Commission on Stratigraphy that the Holocene started approximately 11,700 years ago.
The Holocene itself is subdivided into five time intervals, (or chronozones), based on climatic fluctuations:
- Preboreal (10 ka–9 ka),
- Boreal (9 ka–8 ka),
- Atlantic (8 ka–5 ka),
- Subboreal (5 ka–2.5 ka) and
- Subatlantic (2.5 ka–present).
- Note: “ka” means “thousand years”
The beginning of the Holocene thus corresponds with the beginning of the Mesolithic age in most of Europe; and thus the parallel story of the rise of human society and technology (the technium) must be superimposed upon the weather systems which have defined our cultures over many centuries.
For most of the Holocene, the story of weather is one of glaciation and thus the “view that neoglaciation is ending in present times, is assumed by those who identify the most recent climate changes and global warming as the onset of a new period in Earth history, speculatively calling it the “Early anthropocene“, as a coming geological age dominated by the effects of Homo sapiens.”
There are thus two distinct views of the Anthropocene proper. The first concerned with the effects of human activity, and the second, concerned with the technology surrounding human activity. Thus industrialisation is proposed as the beginning of the Anthropocene, while measurable impact on ecosystems caused by human intervention and the rise of the technium is another vector.
There is startling research being produced, for instance, that showing the impact of human activity upon the rings of trees, conservatively suggesting 1965 as the starting date, and much of this type of scientific inquiry has been caught up with proving Crutzen’s central point while looking narrowly backwards into our common history.
Futurists on the other hand invariably look forward into what is to come. Unlike most ecologists, they speculate on what may be around the corner. Stewart Brand is one such example, but instead of the norm, he is an outlying instance of a futurist and ecologist. His starting point in (w)holism, Whole Earthism, and Gregory Bateson’s systems thinking was the vulnerability of Earth from outer space. In recent years his writing has quixotically focused on debunking environmental concern with species extinction, in what can only be described as a biotech rebuke of his former activism at the Whole Earth Review and thus rejection of first principles.
“Viewing every conservation issue through the lens of extinction threat is simplistic and usually irrelevant. Worse, it introduces an emotional charge that makes the problem seem cosmic and overwhelming rather than local and solvable. It’s as if the entire field of human medicine were treated solely as a matter of death prevention. Every session with a doctor would begin: ‘Well, you’re dying. Let’s see if we can do anything to slow that down a little.’
Instead of focusing on climate change and weather patterns, Brand has intellectually stuck his neck out and compromised his field of study, in questioning the prevailing wisdom on flora and fauna. His speculative departure point, is that far from heading towards the sixth major extinction, we are rather returning to the Mammoth Steppes, a period immediately prior to the Holocene, marked by the Last Glacial Maximum, a denialist counterpoint if ever there was one.
Not only is Brand downright wrong, (I will show below why this outcome is unlikely) but his analytical approach to systems-thinking lacks any meaningful definition of humanity (and thus posthumanity) that includes the Anthropocene in its current form.
In one sense, much like the apartheid state which excluded human beings from their scientific calculations and whose exploitation of both, was a rallying point for ecologists world wide, Brand fails to define human beings and their relationship to the planet in terms that include our own habitat and relationship to the earth.
Thus a human is a thing in itself, a noumenon or demi-god (in Stewart’s case a polymath and autodidact gazing at research into molecular genetics, adaptation and evolution, and unpicking speciation with biotech), and neither the cause of evolution per se, nor even one of its goals.
The exclusion of part of our population from mainstream science and scientific inquiry was a hallmark of the past regime. In recent years democratic emancipation has meant the inclusion of ethnographic and philosophical ideas such as ubuntu. Let me boldly reiterate my own thesis rejected by the apartheid state in 1991. In one sense, humans are human not simply because of other human beings, but rather because of our common human habitat.
Our nation’s constitution thus includes both the right to water, and the intergenerational equity that is part and parcel of the Post-Brundtland idealism and Mandela vision encapsulated by the right to ecological sustainable development in article 24 of our Constitution.
So why are the futurists wrong about the 6th mass extinction?
Put simply, climate change has long since ceased being a linear proposition, an obsolete linear graph. The change in biomass of the Earth’s forests being replaced by other activities and plant species touted by Brand in his recent TED Talk was not sufficient to accommodate the shift in GHG profiles, and was not enough to maintain the view on our weather forecasts. After a three year plateau, CO2 levels went up by 2% last year. The Arctic as I write this is experiencing a 20 degree above average heatwave as the Polar Vortex collapses. Antarctic sea ice has shrunk to its second lowest extent on record according to the Australian Antarctic Division.The overwhelming trend is glaciers are retreating. Greenland is losing mass!
Aside from the untested promise of geo-engineering, we lacked both the means and resolve. As we approached 400 ppm, with the charts on CO2 and global temperatures going off the walls, the cryosphere changed, the Great Melt began, Glaciers, Permafrost, Polar Ice, all significant enough on their own, to suggest that we are entering a new geological epoch, the end of the defining moments of the Holocene.
Then the complications set in. As Capetonians were frantically discussing Day Zero, with the new normal of water scarcity and drought, and we were all studying the water charts showing a precipitation slope ever-downwards, (with exponents to match) we began to piece together a puzzle.
It was at COP17 in 2011 that I had signed off on the Durban Declaration declaring Climate Change a medical emergency. The declaration was endorsed by 250 medical doctors and organisations in the health professions. My role was as steering committee member of the People’s Health Movement, a position I occupied in part due to my role as founding member emeritus of an Environmental Justice Movement, (arguably merely a pioneer species that gave way to more perennial plants and projects!)
I thus attended the special parliamentary session of our National House of Assembly in the runup to the UN Conference of the Parties and a presentation by the Dept of Environmental Affairs. The data on the thermal expansion of the Southern Ocean provided by South Africa’s oceanographers to our parliamentarians, would be less alarming if it were not followed by punctuation, the melting of the West Antarctic Ice-Shelf.
There would be less attention at DAVOS and concern over Day Zero if data on global ambient temperatures were not also accompanied by medical information by Scandinavian scientists on the body’s own internal temperature and what is known as the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature. A quotient itself the result of apartheid experimentation on workers press-ganged into the heat of the world’s deepest mine shafts, and indicative of relative heat and humidity and thus body temperature.
Decades of activism were lost focusing on the solitary role played by CO2 in global warming. In short we were all living in denial. The introduction of the acronym GHG to describe Greenhouse Gas also failed to evoke the necessary changes in mindset as the mantra of adaptation and mitigation and opportunity took hold.
Then one day during 2015 I found a way to explain what I was observing. A BBC documentary on the Great Permian Extinction, examining an event that occurred 250 million years ago, remarkable in that it seems to describe what is occurring in our atmosphere today. For starters, the release of CO2, not because of industrialisation but rather due to basalt eruption, leading to a two to five degree change in temperature, a simple linear progression.
Then the complications caused by the release of methane hydrate at the bottom of the oceans, enough to warm the atmosphere to intolerable levels and resulting in the mass extinction of 75-95% of all species. Despite its short atmospheric half life of 12 years, methane has a global warming potential of 86 over 20 years and 34 over 100 years (IPCC, 2013). One has only to do the maths on temperature and pressure within the standard model to realise that we have a time-bomb waiting to go off under our poles. Feedback loops that could remove humanity from the Earth itself. The data on methane itself is depressing, leading one group studying the gas near the Arctic to abandon their research. (If anyone is able to provide a working dynamic model please feel free).
Tragically there is enough methane trapped within crystal lattice structures under pressure and under our oceans than all the known current reserves of oil and gas on the planet, and no Mr Brand, this is not a presentation by British Petroleum.
Defining Post-Humanity within the Anthropocene.
The beginning of the post-human epoch, in which humanity is no longer defined by glaciers but rather by the same artificial habitats that will be found on Mars shortly, as we begin colonisation of the solar system, marks the point at which the term posthuman, no longer resides within the realm of fiction and philosophy, but is used to describe what is actually occuring in our near future.
At the current rate of habitat loss, the lucky few will be living under domes and artificial atmospheres in our lifetime, as millions of our own species are doomed to a very different climate. Rather than neoglaciation, we are entering a period defined by freak weather, global warming and species extinction. It is sheer foolishness to look backwards exclusively at those extinct species which are countered as collateral damage on our march to progress, since this tragedy doesn’t factor in the scale of what is to come. It is worse than disingenuous to suggest that far from a great dying there will be a great de-extinction of mammoths or that geoengineering, like a bit of salt added to the pot, will provide us with all the answers. In fact this kind of wool-headed utopian thinking could only arise on the West Coast of California, a state with its fair share of saints and quacks.
The end of the first Anthropocene, the beginning of the post-human epoch, in which humanity is no longer defined by glaciers but rather the self-same artificial habitats that will be found on other planetary bodies is upon us. Our own world is steadily being reduced by the technium, call it the military-industrial complex, rendered into nothing more than a factory sub-species, a simulacra of progress, an extrusion and deviation of the dominant impulse behind our technology. The result will be the Post-Human Epoch, and thus the end of the Anthropocene as we know it.
NOTE: This piece written before the recent IPCC report.