The Anthropocene: how “frightened” should we be?

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Be afraid. Be very afraid … of the Anthropocene.

This is the message from Clive Hamilton writing in Nature, the preeminent science journal, in his recent editorial (see sources below). Humans are unequivocably a planetary force for change, and a group of scientists with the authority to decide such things now agrees that this new planetary epoch deserves that special new name. But it should only be framed negatively, insists Hamilton. “The idea of the Anthropocene … should frighten us. And scientists should present it as such.”

That’s wrong: scientists should present theory and evidence. The rest of us then decide what to feel, and do. Leave the incitements to fear to … well, Clive Hamilton.

Meanwhile, the Guardian prevents a more balanced approach, in the person of former UK Royal Astronomer Martin Rees. He doesn’t downplay the enormous risk, the possibility of the “darkest prognosis.” But as he also notes, wryly, “It’s surprising how little we can confidently predict.” And there is also an “optimistic option,” Rees writes. “Human societies could navigate these threats, achieve a sustainable future, and inaugurate eras of post-human evolution even more marvellous than what’s led to us.”

Whether it means the end of human civilization, or the beginning of a new era of galactic conquest, scientists still have to decide when, exactly, it started. But the leading candidate for a starting date is around 1950, when nuclear weapons, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and other massive imprints on the planet began leaving their signature for future generations to find.

What do you think? Will being fearful of our new responsibility for managing (some prefer stewarding) the whole planet help make the “optimistic option” more possible? I don’t think so.

Personally, I’m committed to the “bravely-face-problems, navigate-safely-through-danger, achieve-sustainability” option that Martin Rees outlines so eloquently. Even if I also believe we have no idea exactly where we are going.

And if we succeed — that is, after we achieve sustainability, against all the admittedly scary odds — who knows what might happen?

Sources:

Hamilton on fear of the Anthropocene (but he makes good points about how to identify it):
http://www.nature.com/news/define-the-anthropocene-in-terms-of-the-whole-earth-1.20427

Guardian news story on scientists assessing the new epoch:
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/29/declare-anthropocene-epoch-experts-urge-geological-congress-human-impact-earth

Martin Rees on “darkest prognosis” and “optimistic option”:
https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/29/the-anthropocene-epoch-could-inaugurate-even-more-marvellous-eras-of-evolution

Also see BBC News on the Anthropocene meeting and the search for a definitive start date:
http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-37200489

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