The Anthropocene is Irreversible, but Nah, We’ll Be Fine

Here’s the latest article about the Anthropocene epoch, which many scientists are contending is now (er, since 1950) our current geological age—one in which human activity has become the largest influence on the Earth’s ecosystems. Spoiler alert: it’s an overwhelmingly negative influence:

Human activity has:

  • Pushed extinction rates of animals and plants far above the long-term average. The Earth is on course to see 75% of species become extinct in the next few centuries if current trends continue.
  • Put so much plastic in our waterways and oceans that microplastic particles are now virtually ubiquitous, and plastics will likely leave identifiable fossil records for future generations to discover.
  • Doubled the nitrogen and phosphorous in our soils in the past century with fertiliser use. This is likely to be the largest impact on the nitrogen cycle in 2.5bn years.
  • Left a permanent layer of airborne particulates in sediment and glacial ice such as black carbon from fossil fuel burning.

It’s nice, if that’s the right word, that such a monumental shift is getting some ink. But nobody wants to really talk about what it would mean to address any of these catastrophes. They can’t be solved with recycling, and they might require tradeoffs like coffee and air conditioning and having children. And so if, like me, you still listen to the radio, then you’re likely to hear this “news” story mentioned briefly and then either forgotten or dismissed in favor of the next trick from the election-cycle circus, or how X company is innovating Y product that you don’t really need and that almost assuredly leads to the lengthening of the list above. Article after article, sign after unmistakable sign, and people just don’t care about this most important of problems.

Last week we “celebrated” the birthday of the National Park system, while little was reported about the simultaneous closure of the Yellowstone River due to a massive fish die-off. And even the reporting that is being done about the river cites the impact on industry and tourism (“The indefinite closure of Montana’s Yellowstone River due to a major fish kill is raising worries about lasting impacts to the region’s lucrative outdoors industry.” was said article’s lede), because “the economy” (in quotes because it’s an abstraction of an abstraction) always trumps the living planet. Always. We’re never going to figure out in time that without the living ecosystems, there is no economy. I don’t think we’re capable of figuring it out on a level that would change the Anthropocene’s devastating course. Game theory only partially explains why this failure is so predictable—and inevitable.

Meanwhile on the technotopian front, as the naming of this current age gets further debated look for lots of arguments about how humans will face this challenge with even more ingenuity than can be currently imagined. We’ll develop new inventions that will turn our peril into fortune with a simple app (cue the TED talk). We’ll come together as tribes and nations and ideologically cohesive regions in order to share, help, and collaborate. We’ll be smarter about our interactions with nature than we had been in the past, because we’ve managed to learn the names of some of their interworking inhabitants and mechanisms. …Except that the evidence is becoming continuously clearer that these solutions grow less and less likely to be attempted, let alone to be carried out successfully—and in fact are probably impossible. Sorry.



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