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Dan McCaslin: Welcome to the Anthropocene, Part I — ‘The Earth In Our Hands’

The Deutsches Museum’s groundbreaking “Welcome to the Anthropocene” exhibit serves as a reminder that we must take responsibility for our collective global actions. Click to view larger
The Deutsches Museum’s groundbreaking “Welcome to the Anthropocene” exhibit serves as a reminder that we must take responsibility for our collective global actions. (Deutsches Museum photo)

Since the term Anthropocene has been used and abused by many scientists and literary artists, and it’s employed both as a metaphor and the putative title of a new geological era, imagine my interest when coming upon a groundbreaking German exhibition called "Willkommen im Anthropozaen" (Welcome to the Anthropocene)!  

While visiting close family members in Munich this August, it was only natural to head over to the renowned Deutsches Museum, the world’s largest science and technology museum, and one I’ve taken students to several times.

An active research institution, the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society is one of its departments, and it honors our famous American scientist of that name, author of the path-breaking book Silent Spring.

Anthropocene essentially means “Age of the Humans” and is a very new term dating only from 2002.

In terms of formal geological timescale, we supposedly live in the Holocene epoch, the last part of the Quaternary period that began 2.6 million years ago.

I am not a geologist and won’t go further back into the larger hierarchical plan, but we can ask: When did the “new” Anthropocene commence?

Scientists at the Deutsches Museum generally agree with Dutch scientist Paul Crutzen — 1995 Nobel Prize winner in science — that we can speculate it began around 1750 or 1800 C.E. when human population growth and our carbon-based energy use began to accelerate dramatically (I call this the Industrial Revolution).

Yes, there is plenty of research supporting an “early Anthropocene” hypothesis based on human agriculture beginning around 4000 BCE, or data supporting a much more recent 1950 C.E. date when the “Great Acceleration” began coinciding with the nuclear age and the age of plastics, concrete and aluminum.

Crutzen’s seminal announcement of the term Anthropocene appeared in the reliable science journal Nature, in his article titled “Geology of Mankind” (2002: 23).

There are those environmentalists who detest the term since it can be, and has been, used to feed a depression with how the planet is going and fosters those dystopian futures in which all is lost.

The height of this negativity comes with Google futurist Ray Kurzweil’s contention that digital technology soon will free us from our physical existence as we morph into a body-free realm of immortal consciousness (the so-called "rapture of the nerds"), e.g. The Singularity Is Near (2005).

This is techno-science as religion, and while beguiling, it also preaches apathy and nonacceptance of the results of our actions impacting the globe.

However, at the Deutsches Museum’s "Welcome to the Anthropocene" exhibit — which occupies a huge 1,500-square-meter space — we find an emphasis on the positives and a solutions-based approach.

The whole concept is that since humans are now the most significant influence on our sacred planet, we can and should successfully manage these complex global ecosystems.

We too easily forget that on the Earth we humans have now created, most of these changes have occurred without our conscious knowledge, and often against our true interests; these would include climate change, toxification, soil erosion and species extinction as examples.

Professor Crutzen’s own research into atmospheric chemistry led to the discovery that certain substances such as CFOs had caused significant damage to the ozone layer (leading to his Nobel Prize).

As a responsible scientist, he campaigned politically for a worldwide ban on CFOs and all human-made substances dangerous to the ozone layer that protects life on Earth, leading to the 1988 Montreal Protocol, the most successful international environmental treaty to date.

The ozone hole is much smaller than 35 years ago, and this success shows what we humans can do in a healthy Anthropocene when we understand the results of our actions, accept responsibility and act to remediate them. 

We humans have enjoyed yet perturbed the Earth’s surface (and seas and atmosphere) in myriad ways that we’re just beginning to figure out.

The most delicate recorder of these perturbations is the tapestry of life all around us: What happened to those grizzly bears that tormented the local Chumash (last ones killed about 1870)?

We know that Native American hunters wiped out all the pygmy mammoths on Santa Cruz Island around 12,000 years ago, causing that species’ extinction. Through specific extermination plans, the U.S. government sponsored the eradication of the gray wolf in the lower 48 states.  

The researchers at the Deutsches Museum make it clear that we are not yet on the cusp of another mass extinction event, but many species are now down to very low numbers.

Responsible biologists contend that with another couple of centuries of “business as usual,” the Earth will experience another extinction event on a scale to rival that at the end of the Cretaceous period, but others feel it could come sooner.

We have to think of the lives our children’s children will face.

The Anthropozaen exhibit reveals the remarkable recovery of a European bird, the northern bald ibis. By the 1600s, its population was in the low hundreds because of hunting.
The Anthropozaen exhibit reveals the remarkable recovery of a European bird, the northern bald ibis. By the 1600s, its population was in the low hundreds because of hunting. (Deutsches Museum photo)

A reader recently challenged my point about the recovered California condor, and he was correct that there are 228 in the wild vs. 193 in captivity.

The Anthropozaen exhibit reveals a similar and even more remarkable recovery of a magnificent European bird, the northern bald ibis.

By the 1600s, its population was in the low hundreds because of hunting. Several efforts to reintroduce this migratory bird failed since there were no survivors who “remembered” the routes between Tuscany and Austria.

Modern technology and human ingenuity led to ultra-light planes “leading” these birds back and forth until they could do this on their own! This is something we have not had to do for the California condor.

With estimates of human population reaching 10 billion or even 11 billion by 2100, we face staggering challenges to improve the overall health of our planet, the very platform for all our human activities.

The German scientists together agreed that we simply must reduce consumption, especially from the upper third of humans today.  

Crutzen makes this point emphatically, quoting Mahatma Gandhi that “the Earth provides enough to satisfy every person’s need, but not enough for every person’s greed.”

It was thus pretty shocking to read in a recent New York Times column by Thomas Friedman that “socialism makes us equally poor,” and thus hyping extreme consumption and hyper-capitalism.

Aside from sloppy talk about very complex terms such as capitalism and socialism, Friedman feeds the voracious and childish side of humanity, and fails to bring up the query, “How much is enough?”

The exhibition’s subtitle is “The Earth In Our Hands” — we do have to take responsibility for our collective global actions.

Descriptions of the problems lie in the realms of science, while prescriptions to improve our planet’s health and avoid a sixth extinction event fall to all of us and in the political realm.

Crutzen is a tremendous example because, after his research was accepted, he did not sit back and enjoy his many honors, but rather forged on into the messy political world and successfully created an international agreement that is healing just one of our many issues (the ozone hole).

Welcome to the Anthropocene, Part II column will focus on 21st century literature and the Anthropocene.

— Dan McCaslin is the author of Stone Anchors in Antiquity, and has written extensively about the local backcountry. He welcomes reader ideas for future Noozhawk columns, and can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Click here to read additional columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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