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The Anthropocene: We've Begun a New Era, and It's Not Looking Good
A group of expert geologists declared that a new epoch influenced by human impact has begun.
Genesis 1:26 assures human beings that we’ve dominated the animal kingdom. Mankind was fashioned of divine clay—that deity lords over livestock, fish, whatever else creeps and crawls. This singular sentence has echoed through the ages as scriptural proof that we can be as irresponsible and dangerous an animal as we choose.
The effects are catching up. Like advice from biblical writers, modern man’s planetary assault has had deleterious effects. And the chickens are coming home to roost—literally. Domestic chickens, symbol of factory farming worldwide, are a contender species for the fossil that future geologists will use to determine our current era’s impact.
On Monday at the International Geological Congress in Cape Town, thirty experts voted to dub this epoch Anthropocene; only three said nay, with two sitting it out. The term is derived from Greek: anthropo means ‘human,’ cene ‘new.’ Like in the bible, this coinage denotes man’s influence on the planet, only this time the citation isn’t so cheery. Regardless, it is another indicator of how highly humans think of themselves.
Anthropocene isn’t a new word—geologists have kicked it around since the seventies—but the urgency with which conference experts yelled it is a stark reminder of just how much humans have changed the physical structure of the planet. A few highlights:
The geologists were quick to point out that recognition should spawn optimism. We have the power to change course now, but it requires a serious reconsideration of our lifestyle.
Habit formation is a neurological phenomenon, localized in our brain’s basal ganglia. Journalist Charles Duhigg writes that habits are not destiny. When habits are formed, our brains stop working hard to learn new tasks; it can then focus on other agenda items. He continues,
Unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically.
Is this even possible in the most wasteful and consumer-oriented nation on earth? In which one of the two major political parties presents coal as a progressive and necessary resource? In which so many citizens distrust the government to the point that any intervention would instigate the boomerang effect? That is, how could we rewire a culture’s neural circuitry for the betterment of the planet, especially when a sizable percentage of that populace believes we have no impact on climate in the first place?
Add to this our brain's ability to comprehend the overwhelming data. As John McPhee writes in his geological classic, Annals of the Former World,
The human mind may not have evolved enough to be able to comprehend deep time. It may only be able to measure it.
Extend the above question to nations like China and India, whose energy harvesting and usage has been less than commendable. In the scramble toward economic prosperity it is the earth—atmosphere, resources, livestock—suffering most. Whatever geological experts choose as the fossil marker of the Anthropocene, the underlying hustle of expansive wealth will be the driver, regardless of effect.
Tragic it is that geologists are right: we do have a nearly limitless source of energy, at least for the next four billion years or so. Historian Yuval Noah Harari tells us that all human activities and industries require roughly 500 exajoules of annual energy, an amount the sun offers every ninety minutes. But we’re not focusing on the proper avenues but comfortable habits:
A lot of evidence indicates that we are destroying the foundations of human prosperity in an orgy of reckless consumption.
From fossil fuels to domesticated chickens, the future fossil record is less about bones than manic habitual patterns that moved those bones around the world:
If we accept a mere tenth of what animal-rights activists are claiming, then modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history.
From Cambrian to Tertiary, planetary epochs are defined by life’s rise and fall. The Anthropocene is the first era consciously influenced by one of Earth’s creations. Like any rambunctious, ignorant child, we’re aimlessly rebelling for the sake of it, stuck in our ways before the species’ prefrontal cortex has had a chance to develop.
It is fitting that today is also the author Mary Shelley’s birthday. Her great contribution to the annals of literature warns us of the dangers of unchecked ambition. Victor Frankenstein created his Creature in an attempt of birthing beauty, an experiment that turned against him.
After demanding Victor create a wife for him, the Creature ends up murdering Victor’s fiancé, Elizabeth; the same evening Victor’s father dies of grief. Victor gives chase all the way to the North Pole, dying en route. Before perishing, Victor warns the ship’s captain to “avoid ambition.”
The Creature, stowing away on the ship, is tortured by his creator’s death. His raison d’être is gone. The Creature makes his exit floating away on an ice raft into the darkness.
Turning back to today, by the time that ice reaches most of civilization, the water will have warmed considerably, though it will be no less deadly. The Anthropocene needs a raft, soon. Where it travels next depends entirely on our navigational skills. One thing is for certain: we haven’t been steering very well.
Derek Beres is working on his new book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health (Carrel/Skyhorse, Spring 2017). He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Researchers dramatically improve the accuracy of a number that connects fundamental forces.
- A team of physicists carried out experiments to determine the precise value of the fine-structure constant.
- This pure number describes the strength of the electromagnetic forces between elementary particles.
- The scientists improved the accuracy of this measurement by 2.5 times.
The process for measuring the fine-structure constant involved a beam of light from a laser that caused an atom to recoil. The red and blue colors indicate the light wave's peaks and troughs, respectively.
Scientists at Washington University are patenting a new electrolyzer designed for frigid Martian water.
- Mars explorers will need more oxygen and hydrogen than they can carry to the Red Planet.
- Martian water may be able to provide these elements, but it is extremely salty water.
- The new method can pull oxygen and hydrogen for breathing and fuel from Martian brine.