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The Birth of the Anthropocene
By Jeremy Davies
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
Living in Deep Time
The Anthropocene epoch offers a way to understand the present environmental crisis in the context of deep time, the realms of the distant geological past. And as a strange recent tendency in environmental news reporting shows, current generations are being plunged into deep time, like it or not, by the once-in-a-million-year environmental changes that are taking place around them. Climate change deniers share with some well-intentioned environmentalists a damaging and unrealistic view of the planet's deep past as an essentially static state of affairs. But since the end of the eighteenth century the sciences of the earth have developed a very different way of looking at the distant past, a perspective that has grown ever more clearly defined thanks to some major developments in geological thought during the last few decades. In this alternative view, geological time is historical through and through. Tracing its story reveals a dynamic narrative of floods, climate changes, and unpredictable evolutionary development. The birth of the Anthropocene epoch is best seen as the latest turning point within the swirling history of deep time. But if the story of the earth has always been so lively, one might wonder whether present-day change is in fact all that noticeable in the grand scheme of things. What, then, is the real scale of human-induced changes to the earth's systems as a whole?
THE LONG MOUNTAIN
Early in May 2013, at an observatory on the black volcanic slopes of Mauna Loa, Hawaii, the daily average concentration of carbon dioxide measured in the atmosphere rose above 400 parts in every million. The level declined by some 7 parts per million over the next few months as CO2 was drawn from the sky by summer vegetation across the Northern Hemisphere, before it began to rise again in the autumn. The following year, the 400 ppm threshold was crossed in March. A year later, it was crossed in January.
The air of Mauna Loa, the "long mountain" that ascends from the middle of the Pacific, has long been closely monitored. The mountain's remoteness, and the lunar barrenness of its upper slopes, mean that its bright clean air can serve to indicate the state of the whole planet's atmosphere. And because the chemical composition of the atmosphere has been an intensely political issue ever since the beginning of public concern about greenhouse gases in the late 1980s, the first crossing of the 400 ppm limit at the Mauna Loa station was widely reported. The rapidly increasing carbon dioxide level was understood to be the consequence of human activity, and to be cause for concern about the changing state of the climate. The newspapers that reported the story also felt the need to supply some historical context. As recently as the middle of the eighteenth century, journalists explained, CO2 concentrations stood at around 280 ppm. Thus, given that no other factors can plausibly explain the increase, three-tenths of the current CO2 level is attributable to the development of industrial society since the late eighteenth century.
In the complex field of climate science, what story could be clearer than this? After all, explanations of the contemporary world that look back as far as the late eighteenth century are perfectly familiar. That is most obviously and especially the case in the United States, where two documents written shortly before 1800, the original Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights, still frame a remarkable proportion of everyday political discussion. It is also true more widely, however. The last decades of the eighteenth century were a formative period for European colonial expansion, so the influence of that era can still be seen in the basic shape of the modern world, its unequal distribution of wealth and poverty. Moreover, the period of the Industrial Revolution also witnessed the French Revolution, the founding event of the modern liberal state. Asked about its impact in the 1970s, the Chinese statesman Zhou Enlai is often – although perhaps mistakenly – said to have replied, "It is too soon to tell." Authentic or not, Zhou's aphorism is admired as a telling expression of a plausible idea: that the impacts of the French Revolution are still playing out, and that contemporary politics still takes place partly in the shadow of 1789. But what if Zhou had said the same thing about (for instance) the formation of the Isthmus of Panama – the clasping of hands between North and South America, which divided the Pacific from the Atlantic three million years ago? What sort of political event, if any, might realistically be placed in a framework that stretches back not hundreds of years, but millions?
That question arises because the newspapers that reported on the phenomenon at Mauna Loa did not look back only as far as the eighteenth century. The journalists writing up the story evidently felt that their readers would be poorly informed if they were confined to such a short-term perspective. What was so special, after all, about the carbon dioxide levels of the mid-eighteenth century, just before the rise of industrialism? To explain that, the New York Times broadened its purview spectacularly. "For the entire period of human civilization, roughly 8,000 years, the carbon dioxide level was relatively stable near [280 ppm]." No doubt many of the Times' readers in May 2013 felt that, as conscientious modern citizens, they should be able to appreciate the significance of the climate change story on the front page of their daily newspaper. But it seemed as if in order to manage that, they would need to take on board not a mere couple of centuries of historical background but eight thousand years. Or rather, even doing that would get them no more than a hundredth of the way to understanding the story.
As the Times coolly told them: "From studying air bubbles trapped in Antarctic ice, scientists know that going back 800,000 years, the carbon dioxide level oscillated in a tight band, from about 180 parts per million in the depths of ice ages to about 280 during the warm periods between." Ice ages, in the plural! The mountaintop sages of Mauna Loa began to sound like those Hindu scholars who reflect on the hundreds of thousands of solar years that make up a yuga, each one a part of the maha-yuga cycles that form one seventy-first part of a twenty-ninth of a day in the life of Brahma. But the Times' reporter went further still. He finally set the morning's news from the Pacific in its proper context when he observed that "the last time the carbon dioxide level was this high was at least three million years ago, during an epoch called the Pliocene."
The New York Times was not alone. In Britain, the Guardian wrote up the story with an explanation that the new CO2 level had "not been seen on Earth for 3-5 million years, [since] a period called the Pliocene." Brazil's O Globo noted that carbon dioxide had not reached the "marca simbolo" of 400 ppm for "3,2 milhões de anos." In France, Le Nouvel Observateur reported the upper figure: it was perhaps "cinq millions d'années" since "l'atmosphère terrestre" had contained so much carbon dioxide. Again and again, a story about rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere prompted invocations of the ancient past. Why? What was at stake in explaining one very small number – 400 parts per million, or 0.04 percent – by invoking a second very large number, five million years? Why was a period of time usually left peacefully to geologists, paleontologists, and evolutionary biologists suddenly everybody's concern?
The journalists were surely right to think that the significance of the 400 ppm concentration could not be grasped without making some reference to the last time CO2 levels were so high. This pressingly topical issue, to which politicians and pundits were prompt to respond, really did demand to be juxtaposed with the deep geological past. And more strangely still, the breaching of the 400 ppm threshold was far from alone in this respect. Any number of recent environmental changes, familiar to anyone who reads the papers, exhibit just the same doubleness. On the one hand, present-day political salience. On the other, legibility only through deep time. Talking about the current environmental crisis seems to mean that one also needs to talk about very distant seasons in the history of the earth.
Stories about melting glaciers come with references to when the world was last free of ice sheets, tens of millions of years ago. A report that temperatures in the Arctic are at their highest for at least forty-four thousand years becomes headline news. Disputes about government agencies' handling of floods or forest fires are framed by quotations from experts who describe how rivers shift their courses back and forth over thousands of years, or how certain species of woodpecker have evolved over millions of years to feed on the grubs that colonize burnt trees. Conservationists argue that the baselines for what constitute fully functioning ecosystems may need to be set at tens of thousands of years ago, before most large mammals were driven to extinction. Campaigners against global warming describe it as madness to burn up within a few decades coal and oil deposits that accumulated over many millions of years. Newspaper features about biodiversity loss are given urgency by the suggestion that the world may be starting to experience only the sixth mass extinction of the past half a billion years. The most seemingly transient phenomena can turn the attention of a concerned public to times long ago, as with the news of a study showing that the Roaring Forties, the persistent westerly winds in the Southern Hemisphere, are blowing more strongly and on a more southerly track than at any time in at least the last millennium.
This tendency is probably obvious to anyone who pays even casual attention to news stories about environmental issues. Nonetheless, it is easy to overlook just how noteworthy the tendency is. Individual references to deep time in environmental reportage often appear incidental or ad hoc. They reveal their real significance only because of how frequently they recur. Taken as a whole, these opportunistic media allusions make a crucial point. That is: in order to understand the current environmental crisis you have to think about very long ago. From year to year, and from decade to decade, the world of the early twenty-first century is undergoing changes that can be grasped only by switching to timescales of tens of thousands or even millions of years. Facts that politicians and pressure groups are prone to argue about, to assign blame for, and to promise their electorates or their memberships to ameliorate – contemporary political facts, in other words – need to be explained by referring to eras long before any such thing as politics even existed. Climate change, biodiversity loss, chemical pollution, and so on have made journalists talking to the public invoke geological time spans as casually as if they were paleontologists engaged in conversation with glaciologists.
That poses a problem, surely. The environmental catastrophe has politicized deep time. So how are people who care about the environment, but who are neither paleontologists nor glaciologists, supposed to deal with these vast expanses of history? How can they understand them, imagine them, or make sense of day-to-day environmental changes that are placed in this startling context? If we read that the federal minimum wage in the United States has declined to a real-terms level last seen in the 1950s, or that the richest 1 percent of Americans and Europeans are well on their way to securing their largest share of national wealth since before the First World War – comparisons that have the same structure as the Mauna Loa report – it is relatively easy to see the point that is being made. By contrast, the references to deep time bandied about in environmental news reporting are likely to be confusing and instantly forgettable for noninitiates. As one professor of geography wearily remarks, "It is common when asking new undergraduates about periods of past time when things may have happened ... to find a random selection of answers that fails to differentiate between hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands and even millions of years."
The single most memorable date in the ancient past – the equivalent, for the British, of the Battle of Hastings in 1066 – is probably sixty-six million years ago. It was then that the terrestrial dinosaurs were eradicated by a comet or asteroid that struck the earth off what is now the coast of Mexico. With a few possible exceptions like that, there is no particular reason why ten million years ago should summon up mental images in the minds of nonspecialists that are very different from a hundred million years ago, or one million. If the last of those dates stands out, it might be only because of Hammer Films' One Million Years B.C., with its stop-motion dinosaurs lurching toward underdressed cavewomen.
News reporters can mitigate the problem with nutshell explanations of the dates that they discuss. The New York Times' splash on the CO2 levels at Mauna Loa included an explanation that three million years ago the climate "was far warmer than today, the world's ice caps were smaller, and the sea level might have been as much as 60 or 80 feet higher." That sort of gloss certainly helps, but only as a sort of decontextualized snapshot. Carbon dioxide concentrations and sea levels evidently do not correlate perfectly, and without a continuous narrative to hold on to, mapping the rise and fall of CO2 and the oceans step by step over all this time, even the facts that the Times recorded might slip out of one's grasp. It could have been thirty million years ago that the earth was so warm and its air held so much carbon. It could have been a mere three hundred thousand. It's easy to forget.
One might object that something relatively similar is true of many news stories besides the one from Mauna Loa. Leafing through the newspapers, many of us, no doubt, would like to have a better grasp of the historical background to current affairs of all kinds, not just environmental ones. But those other stories are never quite analogous to the ones about the environment. Reading a headline about sectarian clashes in Northern Ireland, you might justifiably be far from certain about the year of the battle commemorated by the Orangemen's provocative marches on the twelfth of July, and only be able to hazard an estimate that it took place three or four hundred years ago. Still, no one thinks that the Battle of the Boyne took place thirty years ago, or three thousand. On the business pages, by contrast, misremembering figures by an order of magnitude is certainly possible: when AIG was bailed out during the crisis of 2008, did it cost billions, tens of billions, or hundreds of billions of dollars ? But those fantasy numbers of the financial system operate by their own rules, and when they grow unmanageably large they become just one more example of stock markets' many arcana, not a main impediment to grasping the news of the latest crash or takeover.
The science pages might direct your attention back to the very origins of time, and describe the latest research into the Big Bang itself. But in that case the astrophysicists' conclusions (as opposed to the question of how their laboratory is funded) hardly sound like a political topic. Back on the news pages, demagogues on the ethnic-nationalist fringe assert one people's exclusive right to a territory on the basis that they have always been there. But even the most rabid and fantastical among them claim a tradition of ownership that goes back only a few thousand years at most. In the lifestyle section, you might read about the latest fad in dieting–paleo dieting–based on a theory about what "our hunter-gatherer ancestors" used to eat. But moralizing the distant past in that way (as evolutionary pop psychology also tends to do) is not quite the same as asserting that it has a pressing political relevance.
Excerpted from The Birth of the Anthropocene by Jeremy Davies. Copyright © 2016 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
1. Living in Deep Time, 15,
2. Versions of the Anthropocene, 41,
3. Geology of the Future, 69,
4. The Rungs on the Ladder, 112,
5. An Obituary for the Holocene, 145,
Conclusion: Not Even Past, 193,