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What’s in a name?

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Last year, the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) — the body that decides epochs, aeons and eras to mark the earth’s geological history — recommended that humans should have their own epoch. Anthropocene, as this proposed epoch is called, roughly means the ‘Recent Age of Man’ and was first proposed by Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen and atmospheric scientist Eugene Stoermer around 2000.

Today we live in the Holocene, a period that began roughly 12,000 years ago. This corresponds to the beginning of agriculture, the earliest settlements in West Asia, and the multiplication of humanity to every part of the globe. Geologists mark out an age based on imprints in fossil records. They have never marked out an age as belonging to an organism or species. ‘Jurassic’, for instance, has nothing to do with dinosaurs and refers to the Jura mountains in Europe.

Is Anthropocene man’s self-attestation that he is the master of the universe?

If the planet were to end

Far from hubris, Anthropocene is a formal acknowledgement of guilt. The triumphant march of Homo sapiens, chronicled through the ages as ‘civilization’, has over the past half a century begun to be replaced by a creeping shame: there is concrete enough to cover every square kilometre of the earth, ginormous amounts of plastic that outweigh this planet’s seven-billion inhabitants, and warheads primed to destroy all traces of the years it took to conceive them.

Armageddon is no longer the scary chapter that concludes religious texts but is now staid science. Of course, the details are hazy and many years away, but in broad terms there is fair agreement that life — organic life at least — is three-fourths done and earth is almost halfway through its journey of being destroyed by the sun. This is even if mankind stops, as of this second, every wisp of its greenhouse gases.

When the leaders of the world congregated and congratulated themselves in Paris about their success in getting everyone to agree (without any binding commitments) that the earth couldn’t be allowed to heat up two degrees, it only showed how naively humanity hopes that somehow technology and evolution will ‘save’ us. The lesson for doomsday scenarios is that survival must involve a massive upheaval in the way we conceive of our place on earth and how squabbles over apportioning carbon emissions are pointlessly incremental and futile when what we need is radical — almost outrageous — ideas for even a moon shot at surviving, let alone as a species.

In this light, the quest for Anthropocene is man scratching out a timestamp in the sand, not to show that we lived but just that we existed.

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Printable version | Nov 24, 2021 3:23:06 AM |

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