The Clash: Gaia and Homo Sapiens in the Anthropocene
“Anthropocene,” a candidate term for this epoch of the earth’s geologic history, also signals a decisive and critical transition in human history. These two belong to time scales so different it is difficult to frame them together: The earth is about 4.5 billion years old and has hosted life for about 3.8 billion of those. Civilization is only 8 thousand years old, a vanishingly brief period in geologic time. Yet during that geologic eye blink human civilization has suddenly become a geologic descriptor, key to comprehending the transformed character of the earth and of its entire community of life. This is the Anthropocene, a geologic moment of uncertain duration in which the energetic and life-giving flows of the sun-bathed globe bear the unmistakable imprint of our way of life.
In the final analysis, an Anthropocene that will endure requires a civilization that finds a fitness with the earth. Fitness is a layered question. It belongs first to bio-evolution, then to human civilization and cultural evolution. What does it mean for any organism to be alive, to make a living? What sort of evolutionary probe leads to sentience, learning from experience, symbolic communication? How, after 2.8 million years of human existence—200 thousand for homo sapiens—did civilization in a mere 8 thousand years take us across a threshold into the Anthropocene, an era where the world that made us has been transformed into a world which we make. How did we ever get peeled off from the rest of the system into this “management” role in the first place, and what does it mean for the natural system that it has somehow done this to itself by giving rise to us?
Addressing such questions lays the foundation for a closer analysis of major transitions in the evolution of civilization that have contributed to shaping the extraordinary positive feedback dynamics that characterize the multi-faceted exponentiality of the “Great Acceleration” (c. 1950-present). Science and technology in a profit-driven market economy unwittingly extended our weight in the functioning of the earth and the biosphere to the point where the self-organizing dynamics of the natural world are now overtaken and shaped by the world of culture, which is constructed by the very different organizing dynamic of human consciousness. The strained fit between these two now over-laid dynamics give us an Anthropocene featuring global climate change and the Sixth Mass Extinction as its unhappy hallmarks. Science, however, now also gives us a better grasp of the consequences of our behavior in deeper reaches of space and time. If we can find the means to appropriately expand the factors that now constrict our caring and prioritizing to a narrow and short-term horizon, we have the knowledge we need to shape our actions to accord with a viable future.
This book is divided into two parts. Part I traces the nature and roots of systemic tensions between the worlds of culture and of nature that have mounted to critical proportions. Anticipating a period in which the present status quo yields to fluidity and disequilibrium as climate change advances, Part II seeks to identify what sorts of changes/developments might contribute to trajectories that enhance the now challenged fitness of civilization with the earth and the community of life to which we belong. Many books dealing with the Anthropocene, for good reason, are quite dark. I aim to avoid naive optimism, but to offer some realistic grounds for hope, the necessary fuel of meaningful agency.
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