Talking about the Anthropocene

Created in response to the limitations of the term Anthropocene - which alludes to an equal contribution to global climate change by all humans. Image by Claire Taylor

Created in response to the limitations of the term Anthropocene – which alludes to an equal contribution to global climate change by all humans. Image by Claire Taylor

By Nicole Cox, Communications Fellow

Terra incognita, the unknown territory.

Lately, I’ve been in the midst of the unknown—the unknown territory of language, meaning, and responsibility—in an ongoing conversation on the Anthropocene. Pronounced An·thro·po·cene, listen for it in your next lecture. (Or better yet, bring it up.)

If we look at the syntax of the term, the root word is  ‘anthropo’ which means human – think sister words such as anthropocentrism, anthropomorphism, and anthropology – followed by the suffix ‘cene’ which is most commonly used to denote a geologic era. Our deductive reasoning leads us to ‘the age of humans,’ but what does that really mean?

It is the idea that we are currently living during the age of humans, which originated in the hard sciences, but it’s gaining increasing momentum in the social sciences and humanities communities, urging us to consider where it places humans within the larger ecological community.

The concept suggests that human activity has significantly impacted the earth’s surface and atmospheric conditions on a scale that exceeds earlier trajectories of geologic time.

“It’s a term that people have created to describe something, what does it describe? Well, it’s still in its conceptual forming stage,” says Philosophy Professor Ed Barbanell.

Barbanell is right: The term requires further interpretation before we understand what it truly means. Fortunately, we generally don’t just change epochs overnight.

I think the argument about our current epoch is leading us in the right direction—the reason we’re having this conversation isn’t because it’s the golden years for our species, because we’ve made some incredible, awe-inspiring achievements in our time; but because science has indicated that the changes we’re noticing in the oceans, atmosphere, and soils are connected to human activities.

By relabeling our current era as the Anthropocene, it brings awareness to the question: What is our role? I can’t say that I know how I’m supposed to feel about living in the so-called Anthropocene, and of course none of my professors intend on telling me how I’m supposed to feel about it. So I’ve asked folks on campus, “Do you have anything to say about the Anthropocene?” Sometimes I get blank stares; sometimes it begins a conversation to be continued; but I’ve also gotten the response “rough times.”

And then I can be taken aback when the response is altogether nonverbal, in the manner that a dear friend of mine can communicate her view of the Anthropocene with only the strokes of her paintbrush.

Image by Claire Taylor

Image by Claire Taylor

How can we know when an image reflects the Anthropocene; what is it supposed to convey?

Was the American ecologist Garrett Hardin right? Are we now living the tragedy of the commons, where our individual human actions have pushed our environment past the tipping point? Or is it simply our time to deeply consider the need for a “land ethic” where we act in consideration of the greater community that includes the soil, water, plants and land? Maybe the Anthropocene is when humans retrace their steps, where we’ve come and where we’ll go, this time more mindful of the footprint we’re leaving behind.

So whether our commitments are to sustainability, justice, resiliency, or even self-preservation, it seems that the Anthropocene discussion should be at the forefront. While we are living in the age of humans, we must ask ourselves what is our personal role and what is our collective role as humans on this planet?

How do you react to the Anthropocene? Let us know, email nicole.cox@utah.edu.

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