To the extent that there is one we – understood as a global human community – it is because we are in the same situation: We live on a planet we ourselves have brought into radical imbalance. Since few have truly acknowledged this situation and truly understood it, we are still an unconscious community without an identity and a clear plan.
In the book The Anthropocene the authors examine a geological concept for our own time and point out that it signifies a geological epoch, a fate and a situation more than a problem. Does this mean we can do nothing? Both yes and no: We cannot simply get out of the anthropocene, understood as the epoch where the human effect on the planet exceeds the geophysical forces, since it is a threshold we have already crossed. Among the irreversible effects we have triggered are the melting of the ice on the poles, the warming of the ocean, the disruption of the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles in agriculture and the loss of soil. But we can do something to limit the damage and the enormous changes we have initiated, such as plastic pollution, Paul J. Crutzen and the geologist Eugene F. Stoermer introduced the anthropocene, it was an unheard of provocation in the scientific community, since it seemed inconceivable that something as small and insignificant as man could be inscribed in geology one, operating with enormous time perspectives.
The history of the earth
It is easy to assume that "we know this". But when the researchers themselves point out that they are only beginning to understand the situation, that it is extremely difficult to get an overview, and that the many disciplines involved make it almost impossible to create a comprehensive explanation, there is every reason to listen.
For a layman like me, it is useful to review the history of the earth, for example how "the boring billion years" were interrupted by the cryogenic period 650 million years ago, when the whole earth was covered with ice and looked like a snowball. It is also useful to be reminded that four of the five mass extinctions of species were caused by volcanic er. All this forms the basis that allows us to see how drastic it actually is for man to plunge the planet into a new and unknown era that recalibrates ocean currents, the atmosphere and offers enormous challenges for millions of species. The authors are gentle with the use of professional jargon and use numbers mostly to illustrate the changes we create – which is a great help in understanding some of what is going on in our own time.
Humans have moved so much mass on the planet that it equates to as much as 50 kilograms for every square meter of the planet's land area. The global energy consumption in the year 1850 was approx. 1 exajoule (EJ), while today it is 350 EJ and in the year 2050 will probably be double. We have released so much carbon into the atmosphere that it is equivalent to 150 Giza pyramids. We have created 000 billion tonnes of plastic, and discarded 9 billion tonnes circulating by sea, water and wind. The greenhouse effect heats the sea at such a speed that it is equivalent to pouring a billion boiling teacups into the sea every second. It will now take 6 years before sea temperatures stabilize, and 1000 years before the atmosphere stabilizes naturally.
When humans have transformed the earth systems, the anthropocene — the age of man — becomes "a strange new prism that sheds an eerie light on man's past, present, and future." In the first part of the book we see the planet without man. The second part is based on perspectives from Dipesh Chakrabarty, who sees the anthropocene as a collapse of the distinction between human history and the history of the earth, which he also elaborates in the forthcoming book The Climate of History in the Planetary Age.
"We" are used to thinking of ourselves as "humanity", as an exception to nature, as the goal of history. But in a planetary perspective, we are forced to see ourselves as a "species", which is neither the goal nor the culmination of the earth's enormous history. The book suggests that there is hardly any room here "for the hopeful, striving being who has so far populated history." Rather than completing the evolution of nature, we have created chaos and disorder on an insane and inconceivable scale.
If we want to give ourselves a (grandiose) role as the saviors of the planet, it will have to change enormously. The crucial thing is that human culture has become a force of nature, but a strange one – which cannot be understood without psychology, storytelling, myths, laws, inventions, industrial processes, economic theory and practice. All this is examined soberly and clearly in the last part of the book.
Environmental economics and ecological economics
After the dogma of the growth economy from classical economics was challenged by the Rome Club's report on the limits of growth, the economy has taken two directions: environmental economics and ecological economics. The first sees the environment as part of the economy, converts natural resources into ecosystem values and tries to include environmental conditions in the economy to create green growth and sustainable development.
A future without material accumulation provides more room for a surplus of skills and
friends, moral and political progress.
Green ecology, on the other hand, sees economics as part of ecology and the planet's boundaries as absolute. and heating. Then we will not only leave the Holocene, but the entire climate regime we have lived in.
The sea will rise, the poles will melt, and chaotic changes will play out everywhere – and break the world's food production. In the worst case, we will have an unstable and overheated greenhouse planet for millions of years to come. This is a possible model, but far from being a myth: It is a possible consequence of not acting. The opposite is a global effort and a stabilized globe, where destruction does not get completely out of control. The authors do not put their fingers in the middle: This harsh anthropocene condition is probably the best we can hope for.
The temptations of modernity
But what kind of culture should a crisis-ready, tough, quick-thinking and wise humanity build? How should we live in the Anthropocene? The authors reject the eco-modernists' happy fantasy of a good anthropocene, where we overcome the challenges with technological means and once again take control of the earth.
In contrast to such exaggerated optimism and fantasies about full planetary control, they highlight the possibility that we can control ourselves – and refer to the philosopher John Stuart Mill. He argued that a future without growth or material accumulation would provide more room to build a surplus of skills and friends, moral and political progress. This was also the kind of culture and society Gandhi advocated when he asked India to resist the temptations of modernity. Above all, we need a cultural diversity and perhaps also a technological and cognitive diversity – to protect the diversity of nature.
In the progressive imagination of modernity, when we still thought it was the Holocene with a stable nature, we envisioned a number of possible futures and directions of development. We now face two paths: either we change the global culture of human beings, actively and drastically, or human society manifests itself as a blind force of nature – and a passive exchange for the forces of nature. Not choosing becomes a dramatic choice.