Astrobiologist David Grinspoon, whose book Lonely Planets sits on my bookshelf, has a new take on the Anthropocene, which can be defined as the era of human dominance of the Earth. (Geologists argue about the dating.)
Those few thousands of people (out of 7.4 billion) who understand the importance of maintaining a livable planetary environment regard the anthropocene as a total disaster for the non-human biosphere and, eventually, for Homo sapiens itself.
Not Grinspoon. He is "a senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute and an adjunct professor of astrophysical and planetary science at University of Colorado. His popular writing has been featured in The New York Times, Slate, and Scientific American, among others. His latest book is Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future (2016). He lives in Washington, DC."
Clearly Grinspoon has been a great social success among the humans.
But, an astrobiologist who lives in Washington D.C? Maybe we've identified the problem right there.
Anyway, here we go. Have a bucket handy.
... Making massive changes in landscapes is not unique to us. Beavers do plenty of that, for example, when they build dams, alter streams, cut down forests and create new meadows. Even changing global climate and initiating mass extinction is not a human first. Photosynthetic bacteria did that some 2.5 billion years ago.
What distinguishes humans from other world-changing organisms must be related to our great cleverness and adaptability;
Oh, my! Human "cleverness" is destroying the biosphere and human "adaptability" helps humans not to notice what they're doing. (Adaptability is ultimately a form of filtering.)
... the power that comes from communicating, planning and working in social groups; transmitting knowledge from one generation to the next; and applying these skills toward altering our surroundings and expanding our habitable domains. However, people have been engaged in these activities for tens of thousands of years, and have produced many different environmental modifications proposed as markers of the Anthropocene’s beginning. Therefore, those definitions strike me as incomplete. Until now, the people causing the disturbances had no way of recognizing or even conceiving of a global change. Yes, humans have been altering our planet for millennia, but there is something going on now that was not happening when we started doing all that world-changing.
To me, what makes the Anthropocene unprecedented and fully worthy of the name is our growing knowledge of what we are doing to this world.
Self-conscious global change is a completely new phenomenon.
Regarding humanity as a whole, one might say alternatively that "self-conscious global change" is certainly something we might wish for, considering that it it does not exist. It certainly would be a "new phenomenon."
But, hey, Grinspoon is on a roll. Who are we to disrupt his comforting fantasies?
It puts us humans into a category all our own and is, I believe, the best criterion for the real start of the era. The Anthropocene begins when we start to realize that it has begun. This definition also provides a new angle on the long-vexing question of what differentiates our species from other life. Perhaps more than anything else, it is self-aware world-changing that marks us as something new on the planet.
What are we? We are the species that can change the world and come to see what we’re doing.
OK, I need to throw up ... that's better.
By this alternative criterion, the true Anthropocene – what we might call the ‘mature Anthropocene’ – is just getting started. All of these earlier stages that have been suggested as start dates were a kind of preamble, an unconscious rather than conscious human remaking of Earth.
The mature Anthropocene begins ...
Yes, when does the 'mature Anthropocene' begin?
... when we acquire the ability to live sustainably, and become a lasting presence on this world.
This epoch arrives with mass awareness ...
... of our role in changing the planet. This is what will allow us to transition from blundering through inadvertent global changes to thoughtfully and deliberately controlling our effects on the planet. It starts with the end of our innocence.
How do we lose our innocence?
By developing situational awareness: by becoming cognizant of how we are behaving on a planetary scale, in space and time, and integrating that knowledge into our actions.
This will not require altruism or idealism or self-sacrifice, only accurate self-perception and enlightened self-interest. Responsible global behavior is ultimately an act of self-preservation of, by, and for the global beast that modern technological humanity has become.
What we are observing are the effects of not only a new geologic force, but a new type of geologic force. There has never before been a geological force aware of its own actions. Humanity has at least a dim, and growing, cognizance of the effects of its presence on this planet.
The possibility that we might integrate that awareness into how we interface with the Earth system is one that should give us hope.
No force of nature has ever decided to change course before. If we do not like some aspects of how this epoch is playing out, its outcome is not set in stone.
With our foolish species, it is always the same. Humans hope for a bright future as they whistle in the dark. Grinspoon writes that there is a "dim and growing" cognizance of human effects on the planet.
Dim? Yes. Hardly discernable, in fact. Growing? There is no empirical evidence whatsoever that human self-awareness is growing. None. Zero, nadda, zip.
"Accurate self-perception" is the one thing humans are not capable of. And Grinspoon, unwittingly of course, just demonstrated it.
Really, what is this douchebag doing? He's selling his new book (video below). As I said, it's always the same. If you can even partially escape Flatland, at the appropriate level of abstraction, humans are utterly predictable.