1 THE ANTHROPOCENE DILEMMA


 

Extinction is the rule; survival is the exception.                     – Carl Sagan

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Geologists have divided our planet’s chronology into various eras. Of these, the three relating to the presence of life on earth are Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic: These terms have Greek roots which  mean old- middle- and recent life (forms). There are further divisions and subdivisions of these.

In the latest phase of this classification was initiated when human beings began  to affect in observable and significant ways the bio-friendly physical conditions of the planet: such as the atmosphere, oceans, land masses, rivers, and biological species. It is said to have begun ever so modestly some ten thousand years ago. This period is described as the Anthropocene period.

In its more recent phase, with the advent of  industrial and technological revolutions. there has been significantly more impactful human activity Thus began  the era which is known  as the Great Acceleration.

Until recently we have been following calendar systems based on the (supposed) birth year of a great king (like Vikramáditya or Julius Caesar), a declared Savior (Christ), or the initiation of a religion (Islam). In the context of the Anthropocene framework it has been suggested that we take 10,000 BCE as year 1 of the Holocene Era that refers to the advent of human impact on the planet. In this reckoning 2019 CE would be 12,019 HE.

There was a time, just over a century ago when human beings were proud of their achievements:  steam engine and telegraph, antibiotics and radio, and a lot more. We had learned the trick of extracting minerals, transforming and transporting energy,  crossing vast stretches of land and water with fast vehicles on road and in  air. It seemed as if it was only a matter of decades before all humanity would be sharing earth’s immense resources and enjoying peace and plenty. Some of us were young when we dreamed of such things. I recall clearly that in the 1950s in a course on Nuclear Reactors our professor told us that  humanity’s energy problems would be solved before the close of the century. 

This most recent stage of the Anthropocene era has become a matter of  great concern to all knowledgeable people because it has raised the alarm-bell of human extinction. If the abbreviation for the Holocene Era (HE) sounds somewhat masculine (in English), we may refer to our current period as the Shocking Holocene Era,  and abbreviate it as SHE.

Informed citizens and leaders in most governments are aware at varying levels of understanding of this perilous predicament in which our species finds itself. Ironically we may also feel  we are at the climax  of the most promising stage of civilizational development  because comfort and longevity seem on paper to be within reach of all human beings. However, in order to provide prosperity for every human being we need to pursue the very industrial-technology route that has landed us in this plight.

Underneath the handsome and healthy physical body are crass flesh and blood and bones sustaining it. Likewise, subtending the façade of developed countries there is squandering of devastatingly polluting energy. We are facing a fateful dilemma in our efforts to enhance the living conditions of one and all.

The species we proudly call Homo sapiens (knowing/wise Man) began to engage in activities, unknowingly and unwisely, that now threaten its very survival. If we attempt to adopt the wisdom of living simpler lives it would hinder progress for millions of people. Putting brakes on industrial development will leave billions stranded on their journey to  a better life, materially speaking. We are in the predicament of a skier speeding towards a precipice, with no mechanism to stop the rush to the clearly visible catastrophe.

One unrealistic solution would be for all nations to lessen their energy consumption for a few decades, live through the resulting economic slow down, and resume our polluting industrial activity after the  pause. After all, humanity did manage to live for millennia with far less. It looks like the choice is between that and extinction. Will we follow the rule or be an exception, in Sagan’s phrase that I have quoted above.

Published by:

Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.

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