Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Life during the emerging anthropocene

Humanity has an obsession with classifying and naming things.

We apply labels and categories to people, animals and time periods.

We are restless, inquisitive, aggressive, and curious: Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

And yet despite the fact we now know the universe is at least 14 billions years old, and that we are merely mayflies we still regard man as the measure of all things.

Looking over the past 10,000 years we have experienced the, Stone Age and Bronze Age, the Classical Period, the Neo-Classical Period, the “Dark Ages” and Middle Ages. Following this we talk about the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution and Industrial Revolution.

All these ‘ages” refer to the culture of the time; but very little is said about the environment. Our sense of history is shaped by the dominant cultural forces, the fall of empires or the rise of new modes of production.

Of course these are simply convenient labels, derived form the “Western Civilisation” school of thought that dominated Anglo-Saxon universities during the middle of last century.

We are if anything, a rather self-obsessed and narcissistic species.

Our sense of history is shaped by how we shape the world.

But events in Japan bring into sharp focus just how fragile our civilisation really is.

It reminds us that “nature” is a vast impersonal “machine” that will swat us if we get in the way.

I know that is no comfort to the thousands of dead and their families. Personally I’ve fond the events distressing.

The Japan earthquake follows the drowning of North Queensland, Brisbane and much of Victoria. Looking further abroad there have been devastating floods in Brazil, South Africa and Sri Lanka (does anyone still recall those events?).

I’m not suggesting for a moment that the Japan earthquake has anything to do with climate change.

However, we can make a connection between the records floods around the globe with climate change. These events are well within the predictions made by scientists.

The climate is changing, and it will have a profound impact on all of us.

Increasingly, bloggers and commentators are using the term anthropocene. It is another label, but it suggests our impact on the environment is so great we have entered a new geological era:

The term Anthropocene, proposed and increasingly employed to denote the current interval of anthropogenic global environmental change, may be discussed on stratigraphic grounds. A case can be made for its consideration as a formal epoch in that, since the start of the Industrial Revolution, Earth has endured changes sufficient to leave a global stratigraphic signature distinct from that of the Holocene or of previous Pleistocene interglacial phases, encompassing novel biotic, sedimentary, and geochemical change. These changes, although likely only in their initial phases, are sufficiently distinct and robustly established for suggestions of a Holocene–Anthropocene boundary in the recent historical past to be geologically reasonable.  The boundary may be defined either via Global Stratigraphic Section and Point (“golden spike”) locations or by adopting a numerical date. Formal adoption of this term in the near future will largely depend on its utility, particularly to earth scientists working on late Holocene successions. This datum, from the perspective of the far future, will most probably approximate a distinctive stratigraphic boundary.

2011 is the year of living dangerously, a reminder that greater forces are now at play.

We are now entering humanities great cultural and environmental watershed.

Our civilisation has shaped a new geological age called the Anthropocene. Now in turn, the forces we helped unleashed will shape our civilisation.

What will we witness?

What will emerge?

A new dark ages?

A time of renewal and rebirth?

No one can really say.

My only hope is that “we” take Santayana’s aphorism, inscribed on the doors of Auschwitz, to heart:

Let us learn from our follies, our crimes and our stupidity.

Let us embrace compassion, humility in the face of forces greater than us and rid ourselves of the hubris that our species is the measure of all things.

Hope lies in embracing wisdom. 

Where do we come from.

Who are we.

Where are we going.


21 thoughts on “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Life during the emerging anthropocene

  1. JG says:

    I’m not suggesting for a moment that the Japan earthquake has anything to do with climate change.

    I’m not 100% sure you’re right about this. I mean, I think it’s quite probable you are, but at the same time I keep wondering if some of the events we’ve witnessed in the past decade or so aren’t a product of the whole system being out of whack — we tend to think of atmosphere, hydrosphere, lithosphere, etc., as if they were all discrete entities, but obviously that’s not really the case. If warming affects ocean currents, then that’s likely to affect conditions on the ocean floor — although who could guess exactly how. Obviously, only a nut would look at a single geological disaster like this and cry, “Aha! Proof of global warming!” At the same time, we can’t completely discount that GW might have played a part.

    None of which, of course, has any immediate relevance to the horrors so many of the people of Japan are experiencing. My heart goes out to them.

  2. john byatt says:

    The japan earthquake has been overdue for quite a while

    we have literally thousands of earthquakes every day ,

    most of the literature of connecting crustal movement with ice sheet melt would appear to be local, speculation should not be allowed to replace observations and empirical science at present

  3. Galaxian says:

    A fascinating and observant post, especially regarding human proclivities toward the practice of taxonomy from a totally self-absorbed perspective.

    The Anthropocene is not really an era in the geologic column, but a narrow slice of time separating the period of time before which any human beings lived from the period of time when they will all be gone.

    The climate change and nuclear “debates” illustrate the basic fact that human civilization does not control its ultimate fate. What will actually happen to this planet is something that can only become known after the fact.

    Perhaps its surface will indeed become like that of Venus: bone dry, superheated, and sterile.

    One thing that is nearly certain is that a day will come when no more human beings walk on the earth. In terms of how long the universe has been around, extinction of humans is just around the corner. A bit later, the biosphere as we know it will lose its stabilizing mechanisms and cease to exist.

    All this is, of course, in the natural progress of events, and nothing is to be done about it.

    Therefore, why not enjoy nuclear-powered electricity in your home to post stuff on your Internet server. Fixation remains centered on radionuclides as an exotic killer rather than on the mundane, yet lethal, things like soot from poorly ventilated cooking fires in poor parts of the world.

  4. john byatt says:

    some here are pro nuclear and some anti nuclear,
    from my own perspective and fully understanding just where global warming is heading, i believe that we need to throw everything against it solar, wind, nuclear ,everything, a one in a thousand year disaster has killed many people , i believe that we should wait the final outcome for fukushima before discussing ,

    the media though has probably destroyed any chance of australia going nuclear,

    Headlines in the australian NUCLEAR PLANT EXPLOSION-10,000 MISSING


    only to read the article and find they were briefly evacuated,

    brave new climate has summary and comments from pro and anti nuke

    • Watching the Deniers says:

      Agree.., lets see what happens.

      However, I confess to being on the fence on the issue. I see the need to throw everything at it. But I’m deeply concerned about the safety of the technology etc.

  5. adelady says:

    If you’re worried about safety, and you are already pretty familiar with how power generation companies work, brace yourself and read this one. He seems pretty knowledgeable, and to me at least, it’s all pretty plausible.

  6. klem says:

    “we can make a connection between the records floods around the globe with climate change. ”

    And a connection is all that is needed for the alarmist faithful. The alarmist sees ACC in everything, it causes everything, it explains everything. Just as a priest sees God in everything, God causes everything and God explains everything. The only difference is the journal Nature would never print a peer reviewed paper from the Priest. Cheers.

    • john byatt says:

      Klem can we please keep religion out of this, a vast majority of researchers are most likely christians,

      a lot of dumkoffs like yourself are also either atheist or theist ,

      keep going and i will get weally cross klem

    • Sundance says:

      John I agree with the comments you made above about using all cleaner energy (every form causes some polluting by product) options available to us and I find the Monboit article timely. My only concern with nuclear development is that reactors that require massive amounts of water for cooling should not be a future consideration and the development and utilization of better technology such as Thorium should be the only future nuclear option. While it is nice that a multi-national coalition was created to fund ITER, we have looked past our current needs and a multi-national project on 3rd Gen nuclear would have better served our needs IMO.

      • john byatt says:

        agree about thorium, gen IV etc but time is of the essence, we need what we currently have in use as well .

        we have just 60 CO2 ppmv left even to maintain a dangerous 2Degc increase, just from the short term feedbacks,

        Arctic methane will from a recent paper start to overwhelm all carbon sinks from mid 2020, rising from wiping out 20% of sinks then up to 80% as time goes on, even this is well before , hopefully, of using up our 60 ppmv budget

        Once the tundra feedback becomes established then almost total CO2 emissions will have to cease lest we get to a situation where the natural feedbacks overwhelm us,

        this will also occur at a time of even more summer arctic ice loss .

        I know and support where the greens are coming from but again its about time and budget , Do they really understand the situation?

      • Sundance says:

        I just found this at another climate site and it dashes any hope I had for a multi-national coaltion on Gen 3 Gen 4 nuclear as far as China is concerned.

        “While the international “Generation IV” nuclear R&D initiative includes a working group on thorium MSRs, China has made clear its intention to go it alone. The Chinese Academy of Sciences announcement explicitly states that the PRC plans to develop and control intellectual property around thorium for its own benefit.”


        What a shame that the USA was working on Thorium reactors in the 1950s and shut it down. Now they are sitting on their hands watching China take the lead.

      • Sundance says:

        John the US shut down its REE program years ago and won’t have it back on line for at least 10 years. The US will have to find an REE source as China has reduced their REE production and have banned exports of REEs to the US. There is no way for the US to replace coal quickly enough to prevent increases in CO2 and China has no desire to cut emissions. China alone is adding an additional billion tons of emissions per year and will emit 2 times the CO2 of the US by 2020 based on the five year plan leaked by HSBC. The US emissions were cut by .5 billion in the latest analysis and dropped from 25% of the world’s emmissions to 17% but China’s additional billion tons wiped out any benefit. The fact that China recently discovered 1 to 2 trillion tons of coal (4 to 8 times larger than the US reserves) and continue to build coal plants on a weekly basis guarentee that emissions will grow by leaps and bounds in the near future. If nuclear fears persist and delay nuclear development the chances of curbing CO2 emissions becomes nil in the long term too.

  7. john byatt says:

    correct to all vegetation carbon sinks

  8. john byatt says:

    i should have read it first

    methane and CO2

    mid 2020’s now i know how CC feels

  9. john byatt says:

    did you read the monbiot link re china sundance , the news gets even worse,

  10. john byatt says:

    What disaster?”, you may ask. The decision taken today by the Chinese government to suspend approval of new atomic power plants. If this suspension were to become permanent, the power those plants would have produced is likely to be replaced by burning coal. While nuclear causes calamities when it goes wrong, coal causes calamities when it goes right, and coal goes right a lot more often than nuclear goes wrong. The only safe coal-fired plant is one which has broken down past the point of repair.

    • Sundance says:

      I posted some comments before reading your latest and we are recognizing the same concerns. What a pickle.

  11. Sundance says:

    “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?”

    If you don’t know by now you never will. I do know people that can help you search for answers about yourself. The older you are the harder the training required becomes and the harder it becomes to develop the power you need to overcome your human programming and to learn the truth about yourself.

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