Facing the Anthropocene: The Earth’s New Geological Era
Ian Angus, author of the new book Facing the Anthropocene, explains the significance of a new epoch marked by an unprecedented level of human impact on the Earth
DHARNA NOOR: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Dharna Noor joining you from Baltimore.
This week the International Geological Congress in Cape Town received word of a coming recommendation that a new geological epoch needs to be official declared. The new epoch, called the Anthropocene, indicates the unprecedented level of human impact on the Earth.
Here to discuss the meaning and the significance of this proposed new epoch is Ian Angus. He’s the author of the journal Climate and Capitalism and an author. His most recent book is called Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System. Thanks so much for joining us, Ian.
IAN ANGUS: Thank you for having me.
NOOR: So talk about the significance of this recommendation to the International Geographical Congress by the working group on the Anthropocene and just tell us a bit. What’s an epoch and why are they and you calling to name a new one?
ANGUS: Well, geologists divide the history of the entire Earth, the billions of years that our planet has been here, into various divisions which mark the different stages of life and the conditions of life in the history of our planet. We have for the last 12,000 years been in what’s called the Holocene, that came about when the Ice Ages ended. All the glaciers retreated and we’ve had 12,000 years of relatively stable climate. Everything’s been very predictable. It’s the period in which agriculture was invented and all large civilizations were born, and that’s called the Holocene epoch. It basically means the area of recent human activity.
What became clear in the late 20th century to some scientists was that humanity’s activities have become so great that they were actually changing the way that the world functions. Not just changing individual environments or ecosystems, but changing fundamental things about the way the world works. Global warming being the best known of those, but of course the destruction of the ozone layer, and so on.
So the Holocene epoch, scientists began to argue, was coming to an end. We had moved out of that period of long-term stability and we’re moving into a very different time. And the proposal was made back in 2000 that the new epoch be called the Anthropocene. Anthropos is the Greek word for human being.
So what we have here now is a working group which has been intensely studying this from a strictly geological point of view; that is, what are the records in the rocks going to be? Somebody suggested it’s going to be if some geologists from a different planet came here 10 million years from now, what would they be able to find out about the Earth if there were no humans left? What records would we leave in the rocks and so on? And that’s what they have been studying. Has there been a radical change, and what is there to mark it?
The Anthropocene working group which has been studying this, as I said for some years, has now said yes, we are in a new epoch. The Anthropocene is as different from the previous 12,000 years as the Holocene was from the age of the Ice Ages. It’s that big a change. And they are saying that there needs to be further work for determining exactly what the markers are but basically they’re saying a new epoch has begun, and that’s something that all science and in fact all human beings are going to have to take into account.
NOOR: So as you said they’re speaking a lot about the different signifiers that could call in to question whether this new epoch should be officially declared. Now that there’s a general consensus that there is a new epoch the signifiers are being discussed. We often hear that new epochs are signified by what’s called a “golden spike”, the signal that a big change has taken place. Can you explain this concept, and what is a golden spike? Also what are some of the ones that are being considered as ushering in the Anthropocene?
ANGUS: What geologists do when they determine the space when one epoch ends and when another one begins or when era ends, all of these have different meanings, is determine where can you find in the permanent record in the Earth, that’s typically in rock, but it could be in ice or it could be in sediment, where could you find a point at which things clearly changed. Which that imaginary future geologists would look at the past, the rocks that were created in our times and say, ah, at that point something radically shifted.
For example, if they look in the old stones they find a period when there is suddenly a layer of iridium. That indicates a time when an asteroid hit the Earth, and that’s what killed all the dinosaurs 140 million years ago. Well, similarly, what they’re now looking for is what are the signals that we have really changed epochs. The one that has attracted the most attention, and so far has the most votes in the working group but it’s still far from the majority is followed from nuclear tests.
The period between roughly 1945 and 1962 when all the big nations were exploding atomic and hydrogen bombs left a layer of radioactivity permanently all over the Earth, and that marker is very possibly going to be the one that they use. They aren’t saying atomic bombs caused the change. They say it marks when the change occurred. But there’s other possibilities that are being seriously considered. The burning of fossil fuels of coal in particular produces a particular kind of ash which survives and does not wear out, and it’s in the rocks about everywhere.
The other possibility is the presence of fossil chickens, believe it or not, because the chicken as it was bred in the 20th century is a completely unique bird. It did not exist in any previous time and there are of course a very large numbers of chicken bones which could conceivably survive as fossils. The point here is to find something that will be in the rock and be there for thousands or millions of years, and then to identify a location at which they will say this is our marker. We’ll say this place stands in for the whole Earth. That’s what they call the golden spike.
It’s kind of like the old days when they built railroads and the two tracks came together from the east and the west. Somebody would come out and drive in what was called a golden spike to mark the joining point between two segments of railroad. Well, similarly, a golden spike here is a marker–and it’s actually usually plastic–but there’s a place that is chosen on the Earth as being highly identified with this shift and that’s what they’re going to be looking for to decide what kind of a marker and where should it be, and that’s where they’re going to try to decide over the next 2 to 3 years.
NOOR: Now, in your recent book Facing the Anthropocene, you speak about the changes that came with the end of the second World War and specifically with the Industrial Revolution. And you speak about this in terms of often environmental degradation. Now when we’re taught about the Industrial Revolution, which has been proposed as the beginning of the Anthropocene epoch by some, we’re taught that it led to wage increases, higher standards of living, so is the argument then that increased standards of living are at odds with environmental conservation?
ANGUS: What I argue in my book is that the issue is not the increased standard of living being the problem, but the way it was accomplished. The way in which a massive expansion of production occurred, which occurred by moving away from the traditional sources of energy which in fact drove the early years of industrialism, wind and waterfalls, and of course muscle power, into using basically carbon source. Coal and then, initially, oil. These are mineral elements that have been buried in the Earth for hundreds of millions of years having no effect on our atmosphere at all.
What we are doing in a period of about 200 years, digging them all up and releasing their waste products, the carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. And the carbon dioxide is, in fact, it’s been called the thermostat of the world’s climate. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere determines how warm the world is or how cool it is. And we have–no, this is one of the big indicators of the end of the Holocene.
We have released so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that it is vastly greater than it was at any time during the Ice Ages or during the rest of the Holocene. And that is something that will not change. The effects of that will last for thousands of years. And the result is going to be a much warmer and much more unstable climate than the world has had for a very long time.
NOOR: And just naming the new epoch won’t end the environmental crisis. It won’t stop climate change. It won’t fix the ozone layer. But what will? How do we fix this?
ANGUS: Well, in my view the starting point is to radically reduce our use of carbon dioxide-producing fuels. That means coal, oil, gas need to be phased out as rapidly as possible. And our economy then, in order to achieve that, needs to be reorganized so that it can survive without a constant demand for growth. So long as we continue to burn fossil fuels this destruction of now called the Earth system will continue.
NOOR: In your book, too, you note the need for a restructuring of the economy. The need for socialism to combat the never-ending growth which capitalism requires. But some would say in the meantime we need to fight within the parameters of capitalism, that it’s unrealistic to plan to dismantle global capitalism, which is so deeply entrenched. Are there any ways to fight environmental crises that are compatible with the current capitalist system? A so called green capitalist system?
ANGUS: Somebody once said we live in a time when it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. We are so convinced that this system is eternal that it’s hard to see any alternatives to it. I would answer your question in two ways.
On the one had I don’t think there is a permanent solution, one that will be long-lasting unless we eliminate profit at the primary motivator of the economy. So long as we are geared to an economy in which making more money endlessly is the goal of the economic system and of all the major institutions, all the big corporations and so on, as long as that continues, capitalist destruction will continue. So that’s certainly our long-term situation.
But of course we also have to be realistic, and I would be the first to say that it’s very unlikely we are going to have socialism on a global scale, or even on any of the major countries, in the next decade or two. But that’s when we do face the need to act. All the science says we need to act to cut carbon dioxide. To cut fossil fuels now, not some time when we are able to mobilize the forces that can change the entire way things work.
So what I argue in the book is that what we need to do is build movements that bring together socialists. Obviously the Greens, indigenous people, the poor, anybody who is willing to unite and work together to stop the fossil fuel industries. And that’s a big step that we need to take that can be taken within the framework of the current society. Now, that is going to occur because of the good will of whichever particular politician happens to hold office. But by building movement that makes it impossible for them to avoid acting. I don’t think we can change things without changing capitalism, but we can force the capitalists to change even against their interests if we can build a big enough movement.
NOOR: Ian Angus is the author of Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System. Thanks for joining us, Ian, and we hope to talk to you again soon.
ANGUS: Thank you very much.
NOOR: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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