Anthropocene: A Very Short Introduction by Erle C. Ellis — Review

Are humans now a force of nature? What does nature mean in this modern age of humans?

by GrrlScientist for Medium | @GrrlScientist

Listen to the news reports. Open your eyes and look around you. The evidence of human-caused changes to Earth are overwhelming and unprecedented: Global climate change, widespread pollution, acidifying oceans, radioactive fallout and waste, plastic accumulation, invasive species and the mass extinction of species … . These outcomes are just a few of many that will leave a lasting record in rock, which is the scientific basis for recognising new geologic time intervals in Earth’s history. But unlike any of Earth’s other geologic ages, the Anthropocene is unique: it results from the actions of just one species — humans. How should we define the beginning of this new geologic era: the nuclear tests that began in 1945? The industrial revolution in the 19th century? The beginnings of agriculture some 10,000 years prior to that? The origin of humans as a species?

From the moment when Nobel prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen mentioned it during a conference in 2000, the concept of the Anthropocene has steadily grown in popularity, capturing the media’s attention and the public’s imagination. Despite this, the idea of the Anthropocene is controversial both inside and outside of Academe, igniting intense debates. Why is this such an emotionally-charged concept? It accepts that man’s impact upon Earth is so severe and so irreversible that it is being indelibly stamped into the planet’s geology, so it will be discernible in the distant future to successor sentient species (it’s unlikely that humans as a species will survive another million years) or even to visiting alien geologists, much like the iridium layer that was written in stone by an asteroid and its impact ejecta that wiped out the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous some 66 million years ago. Thus, the Anthropocene is triggering soul-searching about age-old questions regarding the meaning of nature and the meaning of humanity. Yet even as it reshapes the sciences, the Anthropocene also inspires the humanities and influences politics (although, not enough).

Erle C. Ellis’s Anthropocene: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press; 2018: Amazon US / Amazon UK) is an interesting, succinct and concerning exposé that explains both the controversy and the science of the Anthropocene. This paperback includes lots of tables and graphs, and presents a factual analysis of what appears to be a purely academic question without overlooking the reality of the Anthropocene. Indeed, it quickly becomes painfully obvious that the human species has done no favours for the planet; that even the idea of a “pristine wilderness”, untouched by humans, is a myth. That said, the final chapter provides some reasoned hope by exploring a variety of ways (some better than others) that we can attempt to address the many damages we’ve made to the planet, so perhaps we might stop our headlong plunge off the precipice into extinction and disaster. Hopefully, we will finally heed the many ominous warnings around us and take decisive action on personal, community and global levels.

This book is one of many hundreds of paperbacks in the Very Short Introduction (VSI) series published by Oxford University Press since 1995. The VSI series presents an extensive collection of fascinating topics to a non-specialist readership, covering the breadth of human knowledge and thought. Written by experts in their respective fields, these paperbacks are affordable, readable and small enough to carry as you go through your day. In short, whether you are a student pursuing a clearly-written introduction to a particular topic or an adult seeking to expand your intellectual horizons, you cannot go wrong if you read one — or dozens — of VSIs.