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The Hubris of “The Anthropocene”

It is now quite popular in certain sets to describe our current age as the “Anthropocene.” This Age-of-Mankind label is credited (often by himself) to Paul Crutzen, who defines it as the “human dominance of the chemical, biological, and geological processes on Earth.”

The human dominance, lest there be any doubt. Depending on how exactly one wished to define it, this assertion might be arguable in some empirical sense, but the issue seems to be more about epistemics than empirics—calling it the “Anthropocene” does two things: first, it gratifies our aching human desire to believe in our own centrality. Second, it opens the lid to a Pandora’s box of political controls—a field where dominance has more than abstract relevance.

I have a copy of a Dutch map from 1660 showing the Sytema Mundi of Ptolemy juxtaposed with the Systema Secundum of Copernicus. The fact that this juxtaposition was even a thing, more than a century after Nicolas Copernicus published his heliocentric model, shows that letting go of humanity’s central, universal role was a big ask in the early modern period. I frankly doubt we are all that much more sophisticated today—the predilection for viewing ourselves as decisive agents of dominion is just too old a habit. Believing that humanity is the dominant factor in the “chemical, biological, and geological processes of the Earth” requires some rather grand assumptions about both ourselves and the nature of the planet we inhabit.

The question isn’t really whether or not we’ve altered our natural surroundings—all living organisms do, and to do so is part of the definition of life itself. The question is whether human impacts differ in kind or extent from other natural phenomena. Has this wise ape altered the chemical composition of the atmosphere? To be sure. Atmospheric nuclear testing alone has altered carbon-14 isotope ratios to an extent that the “bomb pulse” will be detectable far into the geological future. Has humanity altered the biosphere and its processes? Indubitably. Even a cursory glance at the history of global deforestation (and, perhaps more tellingly, afforestation) attests to this. Has mankind altered the geology of the terrestrial globe? Clearly—just look around you.

But the act of alteration is a far cry from “domination.” Would our self-aggrandized title hold if we applied the same standard to other species? Has the “lower” form of cyanobacteria altered the chemical composition of the atmosphere? Sure. As the great oxidation event demonstrated, the toxic off-gassing of trillions of organisms entirely altered the globe and shaped life as we know it. Iron-bearing bedrock turned blood-red, the newly oxygenated atmosphere allowed the first licking flame to ignite, catch, and sustain itself, and many argue it jumpstarted the prokaryotic/eukaryotic evolution. The move from essentially zero oxygen to around 210,000 ppm was a far more significant “domination” of chemical processes than humanity’s role in the move from 280 to 400 ppm of carbon dioxide. This immense chemical, biological, and geological change was brought about by the scum we try to flush out of our aquariums. Yet we do not call it the “Cyanobacterene”? Why not?

Perhaps because it is not politically convenient. The crises that plague our environmental sensibilities today tend, teleologically, to promote our own sense of centrality and to justify coercive top-down controls. Lost in the breathless rush to do something is a comparative perspective—our “unprecedented” impacts must be reined in by our governors, and quickly, there’s no time to lose. In addition to helping assuage our sense of yawning insignificance, assuming that humanity is the Earth’s prime-mover justifies a veritable constellation of state-mandates. Yet the evidence for our unequaled magnificence is slim: Sea level rise? The IPCC’s worst-case projections are dwarfed by the 400-foot rise since the last glacial maximum. Temperature change? The miniscule Azolla freshwater fern had a mightier influence, on the order of a 20 to 30-degree increase (compared to our modeled, “catastrophic” 1-3 degrees). Our vaunted “built footprint”? All of our cities, highways, dams, and constructions since Ur are pitiable compared to even one range of limestone hills created by calcium carbonate shell deposits (estimated to make up around 10% of the sedimentary crust). Our exploding population? As a species, we barely register on the biomass scale, not even cracking the 1% threshold.

You might argue this long-scale geologic perspective ignores the startling rapidity that humans, as a biological organism, have altered the globe. While not be trivialized, this fact too hardly grants us status as primary geo-agent. In just a few months, another Pinatubo-scale eruption would completely cancel out our projected century-long warming inputs. Some argue the Hiawatha asteroid impact triggered the Younger Dryas, the rapid cooling event in the late Pleistocene. Regolith ejecta from a 10 kilometer impactor could potentially do the same, on the order of just days. Despite these humiliating truths, words like “catastrophic,” and “irreversible” dominate the discourse about humanity’s impact on global ecosystems. It’s worth asking why.

The narrative of humanity’s dominance persists and grows. As one of my students put it on her final exam: “humanity has doomed the planet.” Yet are we really so very much different from other biological and geological agents of change? Is our transforming capacity really so unprecedented, so extraordinarily potent to warrant its own distinct geologic epoch? I don’t wish to sound like an all-is-well Pollyanna (it isn’t), but it doesn’t seem reasonable or even particularly helpful to use grandiosity to describe ourselves. In fact, to the extent that we need to tackle real environmental problems with cool-headed creativity, our self-absorbed rhetoric may actually hinder our efforts: in the frenetic push to present climate alarmism as a doomsday apocalypse, we may be giving up on the very forces of prosperity generation and technical prowess that can help us out of some of our self-generated pickles.

And this may be the relevant rub: calling it the “Anthropocene” is a powerful political instrument. If humans are the agente perniciosius, then the obvious conclusion is that we must mend our ways, conform to the proper order of things, and discard our wayward excesses. We are central and must therefore behave as such. Those touting the term Anthropocene waste little time establishing the list of penances: Crutzen recommends (“first and foremost”) we cease of eating “industrially produced meat” and changing from “private vehicles to public transport.” The list goes on, bending predictably toward an attack on capitalism itself and the liberty of individuals more generally in favor of sweeping coercive mandates.

We are at an odd moment of self-reflection for the species. Calling it the “Anthropocene” means we matter and lauding our “unparalleled” capacities for global change may help to re-center our place in the universe. Strange as it may seem, collective misanthropy may be in its way quietly comforting: we may have eaten from the fruit of the tree of knowledge but this proves we are at the center of Eden. The Copernican revolution was a cosmological reboot—not only was humanity pushed from the center of the physical solar system, but perhaps out of the center of the celestial universe as well. This discomfited not a few, as my Dutch map bears witness. Perhaps we never really got over it—perhaps we never really will.

Reader Discussion

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on February 25, 2020 at 07:21:20 am

Quick. Somebody send this to Greta Thunberg.

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Albert Alioto
on February 25, 2020 at 08:15:54 am

The arrogance of the name reflects the arrogance of our collective behavior. I’m pretty sure manatees don’t exploit and destroy entire ecosystems or have nuclear weapons pointed everywhere.

Also, it’s the religious in particular who can’t get over being decentralized. The lady doth protest too much.

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FD
on February 25, 2020 at 09:31:37 am

“The Copernican revolution was a cosmological reboot.”

Certainly not for those who recognize the self-evident Truth, simple and yet profound, that can be known through both Faith and reason, that God, The Ordered Communion Of Perfect Complementary Love, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost, The Author Of Love, Of Life, And Of Marriage, Placed the earth in the perfect position in God’s Created Universe, between the Sun and the Moon to affirm and sustain the Sanctity of all human life.

The Copernicus Revolution in no way, shape, or form, was a cosmological reboot because we can also know through both Faith and reason, that if the earth did not exist in this perfect location, it could not sustain human life.

“And yet it moves.”,

And yet, it cannot be moved.

From God’s Perspective, we are the center of The Universe, and at the end of the Day, this is what you need to tell Greta Thunberg, and all those who do not believe in The Way, The Truth, And The Life, Of Perfect Life-affirming and Life-sustaining Love.

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/pete-buttigieg-9-year-old-coming-out_n_5e52ee28c5b629695f5c3b7f

For Christ Has Revealed, Through His Life, His Passion, And His Death On The Cross, That No Greater Love Is There Than This- To Desire Salvation For One’s Beloved.

“Hail The Cross, Our Only Hope”, for Salvational Love, which is always rightly ordered to the inherent personal and relational Dignity of the persons existing in a relationship of Love, can “Make All Things New Again”.

4”And they shall see his face: and his name shall be on their foreheads. 5And night shall be no more. And they shall not need the light of the lamp, nor the light of the sun, because the Lord God shall enlighten then. And they shall reign for ever and ever.”

“ I Am Alpha And Omega, The First And The Last, The Beginning And The End”.

We were Created Through Life-affirming and Life-sustaining Love, and our finally destination is Life-affirming Life-sustaining Love, if we desire to repent and abide in Jesus The Christ, Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost. Amen

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Nancy
on February 25, 2020 at 11:00:38 am

"Also, it’s the religious in particular who can’t get over being decentralized. The lady doth protest too much."

Well THAT seems counterfactual as i do not recall hearing many climatistas reciting the Confiteor or Hail Marys'
Instead, I have noticed many of these same protesters singing the praises of Gaia.
Also, the point of the essay above is to illustrate how the climatistas themselves are advancing an updated version of human centrality / omnipotence. Are not the claims of the climate alarmists predicated upon a view of humanity that is at minimum "outsized" and at worst delusional and woefully ignorant of geologic and physical history.

WHO doth protest too much?

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Guttenburgs Press and Brewery
on February 25, 2020 at 13:52:08 pm

Why flinch from the word and concept of dominance? Humans dominate. So what? The environmental neurosis of the 1970s has developed into full-blown environmental psychosis. The Thunbergers are psychotics. They should all be forcibly medicated, stat. Their leaders simply wish to substitute their own dominance for that of other persons.

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QET
on February 25, 2020 at 15:21:33 pm

I am betwixt and between on this laudable little essay. The matter of dominance involves both physical reality and biological and psychological need, the physical science of dominance (the physical reality of the matter) pitted against man's biological and psychological needs both to strive for dominance and to maintain the appearance of dominance.

I agree with the author that humans think they dominate the earth. And why should they not think so? After all our stewardship of the earth which He created for us is our God-given duty, per Genesis, and, further, we are the only creatures on earth with both the rational capacity to undertake that assignment of stewardship and the self-awareness that we can actually seek to do so. Yet, in fact, nature dominates the earth, and man will (thank God) ever be in the inferior position of stewardship. Yet, the need to dominate (organic expansion) is a biological fact of existence for man and other creatures and an undeniable psychological reality for man, whether he is conscious of it or not. And this brings forth all sorts of political problems, as the author states so well.

The problem arises because man pursues the futility of dominance rather than the duty of stewardship, an existential problem which the Judeo-Christian religions address full bore and head on, a subject beyond the scope of my comment. This confusion between stewardship and dominance is a problem not merely of hubris. It is also a matter of biological instinct, the survival of the fittest, so to speak, the instinctive urge toward organismic expansion and more life.

And it is a matter of man's psychological compulsion to dominate. Man fears death, and man's never-ending struggle for dominance is a universal form of repressing his fear of dying and of denying death. The psychological compulsion to dominate is the biggest obstacle to tamping down our destructive hubris, accepting our proper role as stewards, not dominators, and aspiring to live within the natural and moral limits of human society while fully exploring our rational and creative powers over nature but within those natural and moral bounds.

Science has no answer to the problem, although it would make a giant contribution were it to reject scientism, plainly acknowledge its rational limits and accept its moral responsibility. Nor has psychology provided more than invaluable insights as to the problem of life
.
Only religious faith, as Kierkegaard and Rank have taught and William James has suggested, can light the way forward.

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Fustigate Plumply
on February 26, 2020 at 05:27:49 am

Fools read this essay as confirming that Climate Change isn't real. The essayist admits it is. He admits that it is even human caused.

He points out that other species have had larger impacts on our world, and completely reshaped it and even the types of life that exist on it.

Humans are changing the climate. Will it doom the world? No. Will it cause trillions of dollars in damage? Yes. Will it cause famine and drought and make parts of the world harsh and nearly unlivable? Yes. Will it be as big a change as the cyanobacteria? No.

But just because we aren't as mighty as the blue green scum that made the oxygen rich atmosphere doesn't mean that we are not having a significant effect. An effect that will make a lot of our descendants miserable and poorer.

As someone who accepts IPCC Climate Change predictions as actionable information, my only quibble with this essay is the essayist's irrational fear of trains, and fear that replacing coal-fired power plants with windmills or nuclear somehow impacts freedom.

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Jmrm
on February 26, 2020 at 09:52:20 am

Thanks for the spirited response! I’d quibble with the “trillions in damage” and famine/drought routine... it’s an old saw and has as much validity now as it did in the days of frantic doomsday scenarios from the 1790s on. More sober assessments recognize that there are gain through climate change (Northwest Passage? Better crop yields? More forest growth?) as well as changes that we will have to adapt to (akin to the way we’ve adapted to sea level rise/warming since, again, the 1790s. Boston harbor has risen as much since 1800 as the moderate IPCC predictions show for the next century. I don’t recall any massive tumult in the New England context...

Anyway, the argument is as much an epistemological one as a policy one—I am unlikely to convince you to be more skeptical of dire predictions. And that’s ok.

By the way, I adore trains. And 3rd gen pebblebed nuclear power....

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Paul Schwennesen
on February 26, 2020 at 17:21:44 pm

Dear Mr. Schwennesen,
Have you done any empirical analysis to support either side of the damages argument? I would like to read it, if it is available.
Best,
Paul

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Paul Krums
on February 27, 2020 at 11:14:53 am

I've not, I'm afraid, but Ron Bailey has done some good work at Reason: https://reason.com/2018/03/12/climate-change-problems-will-be-solved-t/

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Paul Schwennesen
on February 27, 2020 at 15:51:49 pm

"Those touting the term Anthropocene waste little time establishing the list of penances: Crutzen recommends (“first and foremost”) we cease of eating “industrially produced meat” and changing from “private vehicles to public transport.” The list goes on, bending predictably toward an attack on capitalism itself and the liberty of individuals more generally in favor of sweeping coercive mandates."

They also seem ignorant that economic progress means LESS pollution, LESS use of scarce resources, and LESS CO2 output while supporting MORE people.

But that conflicts with the "there's too many people using too much stuff and killing the planet" mantra that is pounded into our children's minds at school, from the media and in entertainment...

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OH Anarcho-Capitalist
on February 28, 2020 at 17:55:17 pm

"As someone who accepts IPCC Climate Change predictions as actionable information..."

Well those predictions are CERTAINLY actionable. Isn't that the point of the entire crusade.
1) And just what action is it that one such as you would prefer?
2) Is it the total remake of world economies?
AND
3) Which "predictions" are you so ready to accept?
Is it the predictions proffered by the majority segment of the IPCC, i.e., that vast cadre of journalists, NGO -do gooders, social scientists and other authroitarian types or is it the predictions of the minority membership - i.e., climate / atmospheric scientists.

So much is made of the "overwhelming" support, judged by votes / polls, etc conducted of IPCC organization(s). yet, somehow, it is never mentioned that the preponderant professional credentials of the group is "social" science types.

They do whip up all sorts of concocted predictions.

Now, if you want some real wizardry and potent concoctions, please consult this old wizard. My concoctions and spells actually work rather more frequently than the "puffery" of the IPCC and its' "scientists."

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gargamel rules smurfs

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.