Clive Hamilton is put out about what we might call the trivializing of the anthropocene. His recent Nature commentary Define the Anthropocene in terms of the whole Earth argues that "researchers must consider human impacts on entire Earth systems and not get trapped in discipline-specific definitions." To understand what Hamilton means by "Earth-system science," watch the video below.
The Anthropocene was conceived by Earth-system scientists to capture the very recent rupture in Earth’s history arising from the impact of human activity on the Earth system as a whole. Read that again.
Take special note of the phrases ‘very recent rupture’ and ‘the Earth system as a whole’. Understanding the Anthropocene, and what humanity now confronts, depends on a firm grasp of these concepts, and that they arise from the new discipline of Earth-system science.
Earth-system science takes an integrated approach, so that climate change affects the functioning of not just the atmosphere, but also the hydrosphere, the cryosphere, the biosphere and even the lithosphere. (Arguably, anthropogenic climate change is more an oceanic than an atmospheric phenomenon.)
In the canonical statement of the Anthropocene, the proposed new division in the geological timescale is defined by the observation that the “human imprint on the global environment has now become so large and active that it rivals some of the great forces of Nature in its impact on the functioning of the Earth system” (W. Steffen et al. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. A369, 842–867; 2011).
As such, the Anthropocene cannot be defined merely by the broadening impact of people on the environment and natural world, which just extends what we have done for centuries or millennia.
Yet this is how many scientists are trying to define it...
Scientists in various disciplines (e.g., ecology, archaeology, geology, geography) have appropriated and redefined the anthropocene concept, and then tried to date the start of this new Earth epoch. Each discipline dates the start differently, depending on the focus of that area of study (read the Nature commentary).
Hamilton says, correctly in one sense, that this misses the point.
One thing all these misreadings of the Anthropocene have in common is that they divorce it from modern industrialization and the burning of fossil fuels.
In this way, the Anthropocene no longer represents a [recent] rupture in Earth history but is a continuation of the kind of impact people have always had.
This thereby renders it benign, and the serious and distinct threat of climate change becomes just another human influence...
Some scientists even write: “Welcome to the Anthropocene.”
Others like Andy Revkin or so-called "eco-modernists" refer to a "good anthropocene," which is absurd.
At first I thought they were being ironic, but now I see they are not. And that’s scary. The idea of the Anthropocene is not welcoming.
It should frighten us. And scientists should present it as such.
Long story short, we should be frightened because if humans continue on their current course, we are very likely fucked according to Hamilton.
Who am I to disagree?
However, in saying that the Anthropocene is a human-caused recent rupture in Earth systems, Hamilton must also reject or dismiss the fact that humans have always exploited the natural world to serve their own purposes, as I described in the 2nd Flatland essay. This quote is from the video and begins at the 19:24 mark.
Don't worry about who William Ruddiman is. Read this carefully.
Now [William] Ruddiman's interests [are] scientific, but the dispute is not merely academic. It has a whole bunch of other implications. And one is, if human have been a planetary force since civilization emerged, in those river valleys in Persia, then there's nothing fundamentally new about the last couple of centuries of industrialization. It would then be in the nature of civilized humans to transform the Earth, and what is in the nature of the species can not be resisted.
By focusing attention on humankind in general, rather than the forms of social organization that emerged more recently in the period of industrialization, the anthropocene becomes in some sense natural. It's not the product of industrial rapaciousness, or an unregulated market, or a test in faith of technological power, it's merely a result of doing what humans are meant to do, and that is to use the powers that Prometheus gave us to improve our life.
Here we see Hamilton's real agenda laid bare. In the narrow sense, Hamilton may be correct to say that humans did not really start to fuck with the planet on an Earth-system-scale until after World War II (see his Nature commentary or watch the video). In this sense, he is right to say that our current situation is not merely "a continuation of the kind of impact people have always had."
But in a more general sense, Hamilton must reject the claim that it is "in the nature of civilized humans to transform the Earth, and what is in the nature of the species can not be resisted."
Why must Hamilton do that?
Because if that argument is accepted, then the anthropocene is simply a product of human nature, and there's not much which can be done about it. Human domination of the planet is not a result contingent upon specific socioeconomic arrangements which occurred after 1945. Only if the latter is true does it become possible for humans to curb their rapaciousness, regulate (carbon and other) markets and take a more appropriate view of the role of technology.
In short, Hamilton must reject necessity (human nature exists) and embrace contingency (a blank slate can be rewritten).
Thus we see that Hamilton is simply giving us the Flatland view of what humans can or can not achieve. Hamilton himself has in this sense trivialized the meaning of the anthropocene, which he does not and can not acknowledge. Instead, he accuses others of doing it, and does so correctly in many cases, which only adds to his confusion. The fact that humans have always exploited the natural world to survive and thrive right up to the present day does not of course make recent alarming developments benign as eco-modernists claim.
"We offer this statement in the belief that both human prosperity and an ecologically vibrant planet are not only possible, but also inseparable. By committing to the real processes, already underway, that have begun to decouple human well-being from environmental destruction, we believe that such a future might be achieved. As such, we embrace an optimistic view toward human capacities and the future."
Whether there was an "early anthropocene" thousands of years ago (as Ruddiman claims) is almost beside the point. Our Promethean powers increased greatly over the last few centuries, and a human-dominated epoch is the result.
The beginning of wisdom for humans would be for them to take their evolved nature seriously, and then work really hard to figure out which behaviors they can change and which they can not.